Celebrating the History of Appalachia Two new books shed light on the often misunderstood heritage of an impoverished region rich in culture: The United States of Appalachia and The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.

Celebrating the History of Appalachia

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This is ALL THING CONSIDERED for NPR News. I'm Howard Berkes. You can't understand America until you understand Appalachia. That's what two new books assert. The United States of Appalachia by Jeff Biggers and The Encyclopedia of Appalachia co-edited by Rudy Abramson. Both try to get us past the negative stereotypes: portrayals of a place and people depicted as backward, uncultured and poor. Rudy Abramson and Jeff Biggers join us now to talk about the Appalachia they know, and the first question I have to ask Rudy Abramson, is it Appa-lay-cha(ph) or Appa-la-cha(ph)? And what does the encyclopedia say about that?

Mr. RUDY ABRAMSON (Author): It's a regional thing. Generally south of the Mason-Dixon Line it's Appa-la-cha(ph), to the north it's Appa-lay-cha(ph).

BERKES: Either way is correct.

Mr. ABRAMSON: I suppose.

BERKES: Depending on where you are when you say.


BERKES: Okay. Jeff Biggers, you say in your book, The United States of Appalachia, I'm from north of the Mason-Dixon line so I'll say it that way, that the first formal expression of American democracy came from this region, that in fact there was a District of Washington before there was ever the District of Columbia.

Mr. JEFF BIGGERS (Author): Right, in fact years before Thomas Jefferson, you know, put his plume to paper for the great Declaration of Independence, there was a group of people in the back woods of eastern Tennessee who declared their independence, voted for their own courts and council, raised their own militia and defied the British, and said they were going to be outside the operation of the British Empire. Now, most American historians have just sort of told us that this is a group of lawless squatters who didn't matter to the greater American experience. But the more I looked into the research I realized that it wasn't. In fact it was a vibrant part of our American revolution. The British Governor of Virginia wrote a letter, a very important letter saying this is a dangerous example to America and if the rest of the colonies find out about this, this could be the end of the Empire.

BERKES: You also write about the region's role in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements.

Mr. BIGGERS: Right. In fact, if we look at the anti-slavery movement when we read the history books, generally what we read about is William Lloyd Garrison and the great New Englanders who had to teach the South a lesson about the anti-slavery movement. But the truth is, a generation before these people, in 1819 and 1820, a band of Quakers and Moravians and folks who came out of an incredible log cabin college in the Eastern Tennessee mountains founded the first abolitionist newspaper. And they said slavery is not a Southern issue. It's a national issue. And this newspaper within months had thousands of subscribers. And eventually it was moved to Baltimore and there William Lloyd Garrison came down and in fact was converted to the cause and sent back to Boston to begin his great crusade with the liberator.

BERKES: Mr. Biggers, you also talk about a school in Appalachia that had something to do with Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, a musician like Pete Segar and their involvement in the civil rights movement.

Mr. BIGGERS: Right, Howard. You know, early on the Highlander Folk School, which was always integrated, it was one of the few places in the South where black and white always met, had been in the forefront of training the shock troops of the civil rights movement as early as the 1940's. In fact, it's the place where Martin Luther King first heard the song We Shall Overcome. And it's here that Rosa Park said, I have finally met white people I trust.

Mr. ABRAMSON: Martin Luther King really became famous in the South in the late Fifties when there were billboards all over the South showing pictures of Martin Luther King and the line under it said Martin Luther King at a Communist Training School. And it was actually the Highlander Folk School at Mount Eagle.

BERKES: Now, Rudy Abramson, The Encyclopedia has this entire section on the term hillbilly. Where does that term come from?

Mr. ABRAMSON: The term hillbilly was first published in the New York Sun about 1900. And the definition of it was a white person from Alabama without visible means of support, ambition or much of anything else. And I suppose that was one of the reasons that I got involved in this project. It seems that I'm the absolute hillbilly by that definition. But no, that is where the term was first used and it was obviously a derogatory term from the very beginning.

BERKES: Why do you think it has persisted?

Mr. ABRAMSON: It's persisted in part because people in Appalachia like people in other parts of the country I think have this great capacity to laugh at themselves and make fun of themselves, and so they have in a way perpetuated the hillbilly image. Most famously I suppose in the television program Hee Haw.

(Soundbite of Hee Haw)

Unidentified Man #1: (On Hee Haw) You know, I had a date last night, me and her kissed.

Unidentified Man #2: (On Hee Haw) No. You mean she and I kissed.

Unidentified Man #1: (On Hee Haw) You mean you kissed her too?

BERKES: I want to ask you something a little more serious. I just returned from Appalachia myself, from a portion of it at least where I did a story about poverty. Is it a mistake to go there and do stories about poverty? Is it still a mistake to see it as a place that's poor?

Mr. ABRAMSON: Well, there are poor places in Appalachia like anywhere else. The Appalachian Regional Commission has about 90 counties. It is in a category called chronically distressed and these are counties where the unemployment rate is, you know, 150 percent to national average, even though in Appalachia as a whole the official poverty rate has been cut in half since the war on poverty. The picture is different in whatever county you go into.

BERKES: I want to ask both of you: We have these two books now that seek to re-frame maybe our sense of Appalachia; are you reflecting an Appalachian pride movement? Jeff Biggers?

Mr. BIGGERS: Well, you know, I think in truth, as Rudy knows quite well, every 20 years Appalachia gets re-discovered. I think what Rudy and I are trying to say is, whose Appalachia is going to be re-discovered and perhaps we have to have a greater vision and put it within perspective of the American experience.

BERKES: Rudy Abramson?

Mr. ABRAMSON: Well, Appalachia has been discovered by mass circulation journalists early in the century. It's been discovered by missionaries. It's been discovered by all manner of people who went to Appalachia with their own agenda and they always found what they wanted to find. The missionaries went and they found sin. The journalists went and they found hillbillies, and the government bureaucrats went and they found poverty big-time. But I think as time goes on we gradually get to a more realistic picture of what Appalachia is and was.

BERKES: And that's what you're trying to build.

Mr. ABRAMSON: Indeed.

BERKES: Rudy Abramson is co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Appalachia; and Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. ABRAMSON: Enjoyed it.

Mr. BIGGERS: Thanks for having us, Howard.

BERKES: Want to find out how Appalachia came to include Mississippi and New York? Head to our Web site at NPR.org.

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