Here in Cincinnati, it is clear that those who retain traces of the hills in their lives can be made to feel different, indeed. Others may make sport of dulcimer music, or of a popular custom of sending a funeral arrangement in the shape of a phone off the hook, with a sign declaring "Jesus Has Called." This is a city where some liberal middle-class whites recall that, during childhood, "hillbilly" was a term used at home, while racial epithets were strictly forbidden.
Whether such separateness deserves legal protection is a matter of local debate, especially among Cincinnati's African Americans, who tend to fare slightly worse than Appalachians, statistics show. "They have a lot of the same kinds of problems (as blacks)," said Sheila Adams, president of the city's chapter of the Urban League. "But do I think it's easier for them in the long run? Probably."
Councilman Dwight Tillery, who is black, said he found it "interesting" when he noticed that Appalachians were included in the human rights ordinance. He voted for it, figuring, "What harm could it do?" The measure also banned bias on the basis of gender, age, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation.
Then, last month, Tillery held hearings on unemployment and poverty in Cincinnati. "I got an education from the Appalachian community," he said. "I can see very well the real possibility of other whites discriminating against them. They've been through a lot of pain."
June Smith Tyler moved to the Cincinnati area from Harlan County, Ky., in 1966. Now 51 and a partner at a prominent law firm, she tells of a job interview elsewhere in the city a decade ago, when she had just graduated from night school. Working days as a nurse, she had still managed to earn a place on the law review. After a pleasant lunch with several attorneys, a senior partner told her in the privacy of his office that he had to "be careful" about hiring anyone with a mountain accent.
Even now, she winces at thoughtless one-liners tossed off by would-be wits. She lives south of the Ohio River, which is the Kentucky boundary, and has lost count of the times she's been asked if she kicks off her shoes as soon as she crosses the bridge.
Today, Amy Morgan, 22 and Cincinnati-born, is frequently asked where she's from. The question is based on the soft twang acquired from her mother, aunt and grandparents. "I just tell them, Kentucky,' " she said, and shrugged. "I was brought up like I was in Kentucky."
Growing up, if she and her siblings weren't home by dark, "we'd be getting a switching," said Morgan, now separated from her husband and the mother of two toddlers. She is taking a high school refresher class and hopes to study to become a veterinarian technician. Her cousins, high school seniors, still have to be in bed by 9 on school nights.
Morgan cherishes her family, but she did get teased. Once, a high school classmate had a thing or two to say about Morgan living next door to her aunt. Her zoology teacher overheard, and asked: "Your family lived all together in a holler, didn't they?" It was true, actually; they had. Why was his tone so condescending?
Such tales of slights at school are not unusual. Mike Overbey, 39, who works for the Urban Appalachian Council, remembers getting suspended when he was 17 for slapping a teacher who'd called him a "backward hillbilly."
More recently, another teacher read a list of Appalachian jokes to a class of young teen-agers. He included this description of a "hillbilly seven-course dinner": A six-pack and a bag of potato chips.
Just weeks ago, at a prestigious magnet school for the performing arts, 10th-graders discussed the play "Antigone."
A student described the incest in the drama as "confusing."
"Not if you're from Kentucky," teacher Matthew Rabold answered.
Later, Rabold, 30, called the remark "thoughtless." Puzzling over why the offending words slipped out, he finally decided: "It's just the perceptions I've gotten from the popular media, even cartoons: the shoeless, toothless backwoodsman. I've never seen a positive portrayal." A five-year veteran of public school faculties, he could not remember any special activities for "Appalachian Month."
The verbal slaps help explain why 17% of Appalachians and their descendants over age 18 in Greater Cincinnati never finished high school, said Michael Maloney, who runs mountain culture workshops for teachers and social workers around the Midwest. Dropout rates in several city neighborhoods run closer to 80%, he said--worse than in eastern Kentucky itself, where the figures are in the 40% to 50% range.
"Dignity and respect are more important than education," said Maloney, who grew up in Lee County, Ky. "Parents will yank their kids out of school" because of insults.
That argument, however, fails to persuade everyone. "It's a cop-out," said Don Bearghman, principal of a grade school in Lower Price Hill, a part of town where virtually everyone has Appalachian roots.