A lot of people think they understand central and southern Appalachia, and a lot of people think they understand West Virginia.
Hillbillies, poverty, coal mining, banjos. Addiction, diabetes, heart disease. Donald Trump and Confederate flags.
Sure, West Virginia has these things (although I’ve yet to meet a real “hillbilly”). It’s a poor state, whose government clings to a dying industry, whose citizens are, as a result, sicker than the national average. West Virginia did go overwhelmingly red in the 2016 election, and a drive around any West Virginia county will show you at least one Confederate flag. I was in a bluegrass band in high school, in which I inexpertly played the banjo.
But West Virginia is a lot more than that. Appalachia is a lot more than that. Behind what the media, and politicians, and the CDC, and JD Vance say about us is a complex region with a fascinating history. It is a history of coal companies destroying mountain hollows, but it’s also a history of coal miners rising up and demanding justice. It’s a history of governors who became cab drivers, widows who took on the federal government, mummies and Mothman, of coalfield cemeteries filled with tombstones bearing Czech, Italian, and Polish names. It’s a history of people who fight back against injustice yet continue to welcome injustice into their communities with open arms as long as it promises jobs.
Because of this history, it’s difficult to explain this place to an outsider. It’s difficult to explain it to yourself, even when you’ve lived here your entire life. It’s difficult to understand and make sense of it. It’s part of this country and affected by the same global and domestic forces that affect every other part of this country, but it feels different. Especially a place like West Virginia, which is wholly within Appalachia and has no coastal or metropolitan or Piedmont or heartland cultures to balance it out. So it gets reduced to the stereotypes and statistics, and JD Vance gets a Ron Howard movie and appointed the spokesman for the entire region.
My goal is to tell this history and to tell these stories, in an effort to make sense of what the region is today and to show that it is more than what everyone thinks. It will inevitably take sides, because in history there are often clear villains and clear victims, and as a historian part of my driving purpose is to call them out so we don’t clone them over and over again. We will spend a lot of time in West Virginia because so much of the most dramatic moments in Appalachian history played out here, because it often provides helpful case studies and stories to illustrate important themes in the region, and because it’s where I’m from and what I know best.
Welcome to my view of history.