A new biography of legendary Appalachian community health activist Eula Hall examines how her exposure to inequality led to a “steely feminism and resolve to continue to ‘raise holy hell’ at the first sign of injustice.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Eula Hall has been called “an angel, dynamite, a force to be reckoned with and a living legend.” The Eastern Kentucky native is best known as the founder and director of the Mud Creek Clinic, which has brought medical care to an underserved rural area for the past 40 years. In this article adapted from the introduction to his new biography, Mud Creek Medicine, author Kiran Bhatraju describes how connection to place led to Hall’s lifetime of work to eradicate poverty and disease.
Appalachia has long played an iconic role in America, alternating between a native frontier and, at times, a redoubt of redneck romanticism. … These mountains have bred myth and legend, and have been filled with outcast immigrants, war heroes, isolated backwoodsmen, hardworking miners, fast-moving moonshiners, religious warriors, musicians, and the occasional statesman—a rugged cast for sure. Eastern Kentucky is home to some of America’s most genuine people—a place where playing the church piano loud is about as important as playing it right. Where people never wanted or asked for more than what God gave them. A place where life was tortured, but caring enough to make Eula Hall a woman of endless compassion.
Eula’s incredible life started inauspiciously in Greasy Creek, Kentucky, where she witnessed her mother give birth to a stillborn on the floor of their mountain cabin. Her father had tried to attract a doctor to their home by bartering his entire lot of livestock, but the doctor arrived too late to help the ailing mother. Eula would go on from her rugged mountain youth to become a ‘hired’ girl doing slave-like chores in well-to-do households. And while Eula’s early life was fraught with painfully hard work, death, and disease, an abusive husband would torture her later personal life. Through it all, however, she managed to find an escape in tirelessly fighting for her community as an Appalachian Volunteer and later as director of the Mud Creek Clinic she established (which still stands today in Floyd County). Her life’s work embodies nearly every major issue affecting Appalachia in the 20th century – clean water, black lung benefits, mountaintop removal, labor rights, school lunches, and healthcare access. Her work on behalf of her community in light of her personal struggle represents a dual ethos of community and individualism that is unique to the mountains.
While questions of who and what and how and why are no doubt useful and will serve best in understanding the struggles and triumphs Eula endured, four interrogatives are a waste when just one will do. Where—the ultimate identifier and personification of her struggle. For Eula, and the colorful and dynamic characters who went in and out of her life, place shapes and defines them all—from the winding creek beds connecting hollows, to the sloping mountainsides echoing their twang. Place defines her struggle to give power back to the people from the hands of powerful political elites. Place defines her rugged perseverance in the face of severe domestic abuse. Place defines the holocaust survivor, the liberation theologist, the activists, doctors, elected officials, and regular folks who found hope in her mountain struggle. It is place that defines her steely feminism and resolve to continue to “raise holy hell” at the first sign of injustice.
Some might roll their eyes and ask whether the mythmakers are at it again, deifying a region no longer in the public conscience. It is sometimes said that Appalachia was never given a chance, taken advantage of, and remembered if only for its raw American-ness and down-home culture. As in every introspective of Appalachia, fashionable social theorists, almost always on the outside looking in, quickly place blame on the people for degeneration and environmental recklessness. They claim that cultures of poverty provide causation for neediness and underdevelopment. They claim people here yearn for dependence. And they claim that Appalachia may well be hopeless.
Those sentiments changed briefly in the late 1960s when the Kennedy brothers—along with a slew of scholars and historians—awakened the American conscience to the Appalachian experience. They opened a wound in America’s industrial soul, exposing years of neglect and manipulation at the hands of exploitative industries. Cultures-of-poverty critiques were replaced by a reading of history showing the workers’ abuse at the hand of industrial barons and crony capitalists. America learned about a new stratification taking hold and creating regions vastly different, yet within the same country. The War on Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s noble war, attempted to change the trajectory of a timeless people and it gave Eula the spark to sustain a lifetime of her own brand of tough-love, bootstrapped compassion.
Whether it is the trailblazing, family feuds, coal miners’ strife, moonshinin’, or just folksy charm, the personal stories of individuals found in the hills of Appalachia often do rise to the heights of drama and intrigue, and reach to the depths of the American experience. Eula Hall’s life is no exception. Eula, like so many quiet civic heroes, didn’t do it for fame because, in her words, “Fame ain’t worth a damn”; didn’t do it for accolades because “We need action, not awards”; and didn’t do it for money because she’s “been rich without money since birth.” She fought on, and risked her life at times, as the sign outside the clinic reads: “For the People.”