Things You Get Wrong About Appalachia

Today, many people's impressions of Appalachia are based on media like the comedy TV series "The Beverly Hillbillies," or horror movies and thrillers like 1972's "Deliverance," which posits that the people of rural northern Georgia are ready and more than willing to commit violent acts against outsiders.

After the 2016 presidential election, there came a flood of think pieces about voters who cast their ballots in favor of Donald Trump. Who were these people? Were they really forgotten? Appalachian writers like J.D. Vance certainly thought so, arguing that his family and community were beset by all sorts of problems, from poverty to drug abuse, to political disenfranchisement. Vance clearly has ridden this rhetoric to some success (he got a book deal for 2016's "Hillbilly Elegy," helped usher in a 2020 Ron Howard-directed film adaptation of that memoir, and then won election as a U.S. senator from Ohio in 2022). But is he right? Are all the people who wrote of uneducated, shockingly poor, deeply conservative Appalachians really on the money?

Not always. Yes, objective data shows that many Appalachian communities have dealt with disproportionate levels of poverty and substance use disorder, as per the Appalachian Regional Commission. And even a casual glance at recent election maps will show that conservative politicians often win elections comfortably here. But that's not the whole story, and people like Vance are hardly the only storytellers. It's time to take a closer look. These are some of the things you're getting wrong about Appalachia.

All Appalachia is basically the same

One Appalachian stereotype might be the biggest and most pervasive of all: that everyone and everything in the region can be painted with the same brush. But, as anyone who's stared down a months-long hiking trek along the Appalachian Trail can tell you, this is a pretty vast region.

How vast? Though the exact boundaries of Appalachia can be hard to define, most people can agree that it includes a lot of space. That encompasses 13 states and about 206,000 square miles of land. What's more, this region is home to over 26 million people who can hardly be expected to all march to the same beat. Someone who is from Appalachia can hail from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Georgia, and plenty of other places. To that end, "Appalachia" might more often be used by people from the outside looking in. People living in the region may be more inclined to refer to a specific place, like a town or county, than try to pin their regional identity on such a vast idea as all of Appalachia.

Even if you lump all of Appalachia together, an honest look at data and stories collected from the region makes it clear that many differences between it and the rest of the nation are overblown. As historian Elizabeth Catte told NPR, it's unfair to pretend as if Appalachia is somehow cut off from the rest of the United States or that it is a monolithic cultural entity.

All of Appalachia is rural

Many stereotypes of Appalachia rest on the basis that people living there live in poorly funded and out-of-the-way rural communities. Whether it's in a trailer or a ramshackle old cabin, the hillbillies of popular imagination make their homes down backcountry dirt roads and in remote hollers in the mountains. There are indeed quite a few far-flung places throughout Appalachia, where residents face real issues like a lack of access to healthcare (per the Journal of Appalachian Health), poor internet connections, and lower incomes (via Appalachian Regional Commission).

But a look at the real data complicates this picture. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, about one-quarter of Appalachia's 423 counties are considered rural. About 10% of the entire region's population — about 2.5 million people — live in these rural areas. It's simply unfair to act as if the other 90% of people living in more urbanized parts of Appalachia don't count.

What kind of cities are we talking about anyway? Oh, little hamlets like Birmingham, Alabama; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for starters. Even the northern parts of Georgia — the setting for "Deliverance," the 1972 film that depicted rural Appalachians as distrustful of and dangerous to newcomers — are steadily growing due to people moving out from the sprawling, heavily-populated city of Atlanta to the south. For many Appalachians, life is increasingly urbanized.

Everyone is uneducated

For some communities in Appalachia, education indeed presents a serious issue. Fewer adults in the region earn a bachelor's degree than the national average, according to data collected by the Appalachian Regional Commission. However, those numbers have been steadily growing over the years, with 25.4% of Appalachian adults 25 or older earning at least a bachelor's degree by 2020. Meanwhile, high school graduation rates are on par with the rest of the country.

The stereotype of the uneducated Appalachian is linked to broader cultural assumptions about innate intelligence. Is someone from this region somehow less intelligent from the beginning, especially compared to outsiders? Or could it be that there are larger structural problems at play? Writing for the Independent, Skylar Baker-Jordan argued that the Kentucky high school from which she graduated in 2004 wasn't set back by its students, but by a lack of funding and teacher education. Yet, with new leadership and more money from the state, things changed dramatically. Scalawag magazine reported that, in 2012, only 33% of seniors from Baker-Jordan's school, Leslie County High School, graduated. Just seven years later, 99% of the graduating class had earned their high school diploma.

A significant part of the turnaround in this particular high school can be attributed to parents pushing their children to complete high school and enter college. Individuals like Principal Robert Roark, himself a local, and dedicated teachers like those remembered by Baker-Jordan also make it clear that education is valued by many Appalachians.

Many Appalachian people are inbred

Like so many misconceptions about Appalachia, the idea of the inbred hillbilly began as gossip. Starting in the late 19th century, writers, politicians, and other outsiders who visited the region came across plenty of rural communities. Assuming that "rural" also meant "completely closed off from the outside world" — even though they managed to travel to these places, somehow — speculation soon turned to the question of how people there kept producing little Appalachians. Without the benefit of DNA studies or bothering to ask anyone, many assumed that residents were inbred. After all, who else was available for family-making if not members of one's own family tree?

Eventually, this assumption became so cemented into the broader national idea of Appalachia that it went beyond poorly-written articles and schlocky horror films with monstrous inbred cannibals. Representatives for the National Mining Association argued that a 2011 study published in Environmental Research that linked mountaintop removal mining with higher local rates of birth defects was poorly designed. They controversially claimed that consanguinity — another term for inbreeding — could explain the significantly increased rate of birth defects.

However, that claim doesn't pan out, as actual research doesn't support this pernicious stereotype. A 1980 study published in Central Issues in Anthropology had already made it clear that rates of inbreeding in Appalachia were no higher than anywhere else in the country. And, unlike earlier reports, this was based on original research and not breathless speculation.

Only white people live in Appalachia

It's true that, in rural Appalachia, non-white people are in the minority. According to data collected by the Appalachian Regional Commission, about 12.3% of the people living in rural Appalachian counties are members of a non-white minority (compared to 25.6% in rural communities outside of Appalachia). However, more Black people live in rural Appalachia compared to other parts of the U.S., making up about 7.8% of the population compared to 6.5% in other rural American places. Black Americans arrived in the region at about the same time as white settlers in the 18th century, with more moving into northern parts of the range after the post-Civil War south became dangerous for them.

This misconception also flatly ignores the first human inhabitants of the land. Appalachia is home to many American Indian tribes, from the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York down to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Tribes like the Cherokee and Shawnee also have deep roots in the region. The whole region was said to be named after the Apalachee people.

Today, more people with Latino heritage live in the region, in both rural and urban communities. Ann Kingsolver, director of the University of Kentucky's Appalachian Center in 2014, told NPR that Latinos made up a mere 1% of the region's population in 1990. Just 10 years later, that number had doubled. By 2014, more than 4% of Appalachians were Latino and Spanish was the second most-spoken language in the region.

No LGBTQ people stay in the region

As some LGBTQ people can tell you from personal experience, it isn't easy to be out in parts of Appalachia. According to a 2019 report from the Movement Advancement Project, about 3 million LGBTQ people live in rural places, where they are more likely to face outright discrimination, enjoy fewer legal protections, and have little recourse for defending themselves. In a region where higher-than-average poverty levels, a dearth of jobs, and housing inequality already make things difficult for everyone, additional barriers set up against LGBTQ Appalachians can make things all the more difficult to simply live, as per 2019 data released by the Campaign for Southern Equality.

LGBTQ youth who spoke to 100 Days in Appalachia noted that, while things have been slowly getting better, many still fear for their safety in some situations. Meanwhile, JAMA Pediatrics reports that gender-nonconforming youth in Appalachia are more likely to face mental and physical health issues than their cisgender peers.

But the truth remains that plenty of LGBTQ live in Appalachia and there is a small but active community of people who are ready to build community. Advocacy organizations like the Tennessee-based STAY Together Appalachian Youth Project provide tangible support for LGBTQ youth who need financial and social support that their families can't (or won't) provide. This and other activist grassroots groups — like the trans-focused Tranzmission — make it clear that LGBTQ people have been and are still very much part of Appalachian communities.

[Featured image by Anthony Crider via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 2.0]

Appalachians won't change their minds on gender

There is no denying that, socially and politically speaking, many communities in Appalachia are pretty conservative. One might assume that current political hot potatoes like sexuality and gender would be a topic of great debate here, as it is in many places throughout the United States and beyond. It surely is, depending on who you ask and how much time you've set aside for a conversation. But the real history of gender expression in Appalachia and present opinions surrounding it may surprise you.

The truth is that transgender people have existed in Appalachian communities for generations. These include people like "Miss Carolyn," who grew up as a gender nonconforming youth in midcentury West Virginia. Interviewed in 2018, she said that, if she had access to modern terminology back then, she would have readily identified as a transgender woman (via "Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City"). Another woman, known as "Miss Rhoda," openly claimed a trans identity when she spoke to the Roanoker publication in 1977.

Many Appalachians' attitudes toward gender have shifted even more dramatically in recent decades. Speaking to Inside Appalachia (via 100 Days in Appalachia), associate professor Darlene Daneker notes that transgender Appalachians today can enjoy the support of their families and friends, though it's not a universal narrative.

Poverty is widespread in Appalachia

For much of the time Appalachia has existed as part of the American cultural consciousness, its image has been marred by poverty tourism. For decades, journalists, photographers, and politicians (including President Lyndon Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt), have visited the region, ostensibly to take stock of living conditions there and bring attention to issues they find. These visits may have been a key component of the '60s-era war on poverty, where shocking images of poor Americans may have bolstered support for new policies and government assistance programs. Yet, these visits have also sometimes taken on the air of a sideshow attraction that bolstered the image of a shoeless, dirt-poor family living in a backwoods shack. Americans elsewhere could sit back and be thankful that they weren't like those backward, poverty-struck people in places like rural Kentucky and West Virginia. The image soon stuck.

Despite the prevalence of the poor Appalachian stereotype, those reports only told a partial story. It's true that today, poverty can be a very real issue faced by people living in both urban and rural Appalachia. The Appalachian Regional Commission reports that income throughout the region tends to be lower than the national average, with median income trending at $53,546 in 2020 (compared to a national median income of $64,994). People are also more likely to utilize programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, incomes in Appalachia have been growing, with some in urban centers earning more than the national average.

All Applachians are politically conservative

While it's clear that many states in the Appalachian region are reliable wins for conservative Republican politicians today, this political lean only speaks to recent decades. A longer view of how Appalachian people have voted and organized presented a far more complicated picture. In some places, the stranglehold that powerful coal companies held inspired a wave of worker uprisings and activist movements in the 20th century.

This conflict produced dramatic politically-charged episodes, such as the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, in which a staggering 10,000 coal miners in West Virginia went on strike from August to September to protest low wages, dangerous conditions, and the depressingly awful housing provided by coal companies. The clash with anti-union forces ended with bloody consequences, as an estimated 16 people died there. Earlier in August, Sid Hatfield, the pro-union sheriff of Matewan, West Virginia was shot dead on the steps of a local courthouse by agents hired by the coal company. His deputy, Ed Chambers, was also killed that day. Similar fights between coal companies and miners happened throughout the region over the ensuing decades, including the events leading to a 1931 incident that earned one Kentucky region the name of "Bloody Harlan."

Places like West Virginia were even once considered centers of liberal politics, given that schools in the state were some of the earliest in the nation to desegregate in the 1960s and the Democratic John F. Kennedy easily won the state in his presidential election.

Only Protestant Christians worship in Appalachia

Though the Protestant variety of Christianity is the most commonly practiced religion throughout Appalachia, believers aren't limited to small Baptist churches dotted through the hills. Neither were their ancestors. From nearly the very beginning of European settlement in the region, non-Christians put down stakes in Appalachia. According to a 2019 study published in the Ethnic Studies Review, DNA testing from the Cumberland Gap region at the intersection of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia indicates the presence of early Jewish settlers in the area. Using a 5,000-person database, researchers suggest that Jewish people may have begun living there as early as the 16th century. 

The evidence for Jewish presence in Appalachia becomes even more clear in the 19th century, such as the establishment of the Congregation B'nai Jacob in Charleston, West Virginia in 1894, not to mention Jewish graves there dating at least as far back as 1806. Likewise, the B'Nai Sholom Congregation in Bristol, Tennessee has been active since 1904.

Muslims also practice their faith throughout Appalachia. Like other non-Christians, they are decidedly in the minority. Yet mosques do exist throughout the region, particularly in more liberal areas with universities. Speaking to Al Jazeera, surgeon and imam Syed Badrudduja says that his mosque in eastern Kentucky serves a small but active population (many of whom are doctors). And while other Muslim places of worship have dealt with threats, Badrudduja notes that non-Muslims in his community have offered support even in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

[Featured image by Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 4.0]