Speak Your Piece: Think Twice Before Calling Coalfield Appalachia ‘Racist’

Are the coalfields more racist than other parts of the South or U.S.? Pundits don’t let the facts get in the way of their sweeping – and erroneous – conclusions.

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During President Obama’s reelection bid, a radio commentator stated with certainty that the conservative “hillbilly firewall” would hinder a second term in the states with sizable Appalachian districts. The prediction was not a compliment to our mountain region on many fronts but does prove that stereotyping mountain residents appears to be the last politically correct bigotry promoted by much of the media.

Not that facts should get in the way of a pithy slur, but maybe we should use the coalfields of Virginia as a potential counter weight. In 1951 Norton, Virginia, started its Little League program and expressly included black kids, the only program to do so in the entire state (and likely in the former Confederacy). Charlottesville’s team won the eastern title and demanded that the black Norton players be taken off the team before the state title game. Norton, being the only Little League program in western Virginia, made the state final by default. Consequently, no one knew how this brand new team would play against decades old programs.

Ironically 1951 was the year that the University of Virginia’s law school in Charlottesville went to court to prevent a black student from entering those elite hallways. Gregory Swanson had all the qualifications for admission except the color of his skin. UVA lost on appeal and Gregory made history. He wasn’t allowed to live on campus and was roundly ostracized so ended up leaving UVA early but went on to practice law.

Meanwhile, Norton’s Little League sponsors refused to reject their black players and would have won the state title by forfeiture had the segregated team failed to show. Instead, Charlottesville came to Norton to pummel the integrated upstarts and lost 12-3.

Later, UVA’s branch in Wise County, known as Clinch Valley College at the time, admitted a female black student to its two-year program despite resistance from the mother ship in Charlottesville. Clinch Valley’s homegrown chancellor, Dr. Joe Smiddy, famously replied when told the applicant was black: “What color is her money?” and promptly let her in.

Despite this history of inclusion, I have many times been called to account for racism in the coalfields by my friends from other sections of the state and from “up North.” I point out that although Virginia’s coal camps were indeed segregated mostly by coal company housing and schools, the races shopped together, ate where they chose, went to the same movie houses, worked side by side in very dangerous conditions every day and belonged to the same union. When mine disasters occurred rescue teams went in after their trapped “brother” regardless of race. Appalachian mining camps were also made up of immigrants from Poland, Italy, Hungary, and many Slavic countries. This “melting pot” rivaled New York City and San Francisco in proportion.

The 1938-9 Dante Central High School football team seems to be one of Southwest Virginia's first integrated sports teams.
The 1938-9 Dante Central High School football team seems to be one of Southwest Virginia’s first integrated sports teams.

I also tell my erstwhile friends that I have a photo of Russell County’s Dante Central High School football program of 1940 and there stands a black player in the team picture. I provide more examples including that coalfield Appalachia represented a sizable pro-Union sentiment before and during the Civil War, resulting in the formation of present day West Virginia. I usually get blank stares in reply. I am not sure if the stares are due to disbelief, awe, or not understanding my mountain dialect, but they are painfully hilarious nonetheless.

More evidence is easy to find that racism here in the Appalachian coalfields is not as pervasive as political pundits, who assume all negative stereotypes about us, like to portray. For example, in Southwest Virginia the 9th congressional district runs from Salem to Cumberland Gap. It is conservative territory no doubt, but the past three Democratic presidential candidates, Gore, Kerry and Obama (all three arguably the most liberal U.S. Senators at the time) garnered roughly 39% of the vote.

The obvious question then is if we are such racists, how did Barack Obama pull virtually the same percent of votes as two of the whitest guys in America? It is no big surprise that President Obama did very poorly here in his reelection bid because by that time his attitude toward coal, gun rights, late-term abortions, and marriage were well known. Agree with the coalfield majority’s stance on these issues or not, the 92% white voting bloc here gave the president his equal share until it became clear how he felt about us “clinging” to guns, Bibles and the American flag. Voting “no” to his second term after that revelation was based upon fact-driven democracy, not racism.

In other words, our coalfield region had a history of inclusion before more genteel regions of Virginia were ordered by courts to do so. Court ordered integration in the coalfields happened almost seamlessly, while northern Virginia privatized public schools to try to avoid the law. It took many years in some parts of the state to reach full compliance and a few scholars opine that our cities have inched back toward segregation “light.” McDowell County in West Virginia was so inclusive of its large population of African Americans who migrated there in the early 1900’s that it was dubbed “The Free State of McDowell.” The list continues.

So a memo from the “hillbilly firewall” is in order to our fellow Virginians and the talking heads and journalists who negatively assume too much (or too little) about our mountain character: Look at the race relations history of the place you call home, compare it with ours and, with all due respect, keep your cake hole shut.

Frank Kilgore is the son and grandson of coal miners, an Appalachian conservationist, historian, author and founder of the Appalachian College of Pharmacy located in Buchanan County, Virginia.

 

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