Uneven ground, p.1

Uneven Ground, page 1


Uneven Ground

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Uneven Ground

  Praise for Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945

  “Appalachia still weighs heavily on America’s conscience and consciousness, as Ronald D Eller demonstrates with great insight and eloquence in his much-anticipated new study. Uneven Ground offers a clear and compelling portrait of the complexities and contradictions that characterize this vast and increasingly diverse region, burdened at once by growth and stagnation, by both its past and its future. This is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the dynamics of poverty and progress, of power and powerlessness, in modern Appalachia and the discomforting disparities that still set it apart from the nation as a whole.”—John C. Inscoe, author of Race, War, and Remembrance in the Appalachian South

  “Ronald D Eller has written a provocative, compelling, and comprehensive account of the vast transformations in the Appalachian region from 1945 to the present. Against a backdrop of major economic and demographic trends such as deindustrialization, the spread of consumerism, and out-migration, Eller brilliantly analyzes politics and policy making, reform movements and citizen activism, and, above all else, the misplaced faith in economic development that has contributed more to inequality, impoverishment, and environmental ruin in the mountain region than to prosperity and well-being. A must read.”—Dwight B. Billings, Professor of Sociology, University of Kentucky

  “The reality and the idea of Appalachia have intrigued and frustrated outside observers for more than a century. Policy makers have long sought to transform—‘modernize’—through social engineering. Eller provides a judicious, informed history. . . . Anyone interested in Appalachia should read this book.”—John B. Boles, William P. Hobby Professor of History

  “Uneven Ground is passionate, clear, concise, and at times profound. It represents in many ways the cumulative vision of decades of observation about, experience in, and research on Appalachia. Eller is astute to relate very early in the book how integral Appalachia was to the history of American development.”—Chad Berry, author of Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles

  “Makes important contributions to the fields of Appalachian history and the history of the United States’ antipoverty public policy. A sweeping narrative that cuts across a half century of economic, political, and environmental themes, this book provides a synthesis of scholarship and commentary concerning the politics of economic development directed toward the southern mountains. It is a highly significant work that will serve as the standard reference for the foreseeable future.”—Robert S. Weise, author of Grasping at Independence: Debt, Male Authority, and Mineral Rights in Appalachian Kentucky, 1850–1915

  “In Uneven Ground, Ronald D Eller masterfully integrates historical and public-policy analysis into a new and definitive history of modern Appalachia. No other observer has so skillfully located post–World War II Appalachia at the center of debates over social, political, and economic equity in America. Eller shows how competing interpretations of modernization, development, and reform have historically failed to address structural factors in global capitalism that have contributed to persistent class and cultural conflicts in the region.”—John C. Hennen, author of The Americanization of West Virginia

  “Uneven Ground is a cogent, deeply informed narrative of the transformations and traditions that have made Appalachia what it is today. Drawing on an impressive range of historical knowledge as well as his own experiences as an activist, advocate, and policy advisor, Eller examines the often-conflicting ideas, attitudes, motivations, and especially the politics behind post–World War II efforts to ‘modernize’ the region—and the deep-seated problems of inequality, social and environmental exploitation, and outside corporate dominance that these efforts either exacerbated or failed to address. . . . The story of Appalachia, Eller makes clear, is an American story: of persistent, now rapidly growing disparities of wealth and political power; of the drive for growth and development at both human and environmental expense; of efforts to ‘solve’ poverty without addressing underlying inequities; of the quest to preserve cultural integrity against commercial exploitation. . . . Though transformed by economic development, Appalachia remains grounded in the traditions that continue to shape and inspire another American story: of the enduring struggle for economic and environmental democracy.”—Alice O’Connor, author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History





  Ronald D Eller



  Copyright © 2008 by Ronald D Eller

  Paperback edition 2013

  “How America Came to the Mountains,” by Jim Wayne Miller, is reprinted from The Brier Poems by permission of Gnomon Press. Copyright © 1997 by The Estate of Jim Wayne Miller.

  The University Press of Kentucky

  Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth, serving Bellarmine University, Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson Historical Society, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University. All rights reserved.

  Editorial and Sales Offices: The University Press of Kentucky 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008 www.kentuckypress.com

  17 16 15 14 13 5 4 3 2 1

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows: Eller, Ronald D, 1948-

  Uneven ground : Appalachia since 1945 / Ronald D Eller.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  ISBN 978-0-8131-2523-7 (hardcover : alk. paper)

  1. Appalachian Region, Southern—Rural conditions. 2. Appalachian Region, Southern—Economic conditions. 3. Appalachian Region, Southern—Social conditions—20th century. 4. Appalachian Region, Southern—Social conditions—21st century. 5. Rural development—Appalachian Region, Southern—History. 6. Poverty—Appalachian Region, Southern—History. 7. Rural poor—Appalachian Region, Southern—History. I. Title.

  HN79.A127E55 2008



  ISBN 978-0-8131-4246-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)

  This book is printed on acid-free paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials.

  Manufactured in the United States of America.

  Member of the Association of

  American University Presses

  For Jane

  and for the memory of our parents,

  Elden Carl and Freda Jane Wilson


  Oliver D and Virginia Ruth Eller




  “How America Came to the Mountains,” by Jim Wayne Miller


  1. Rich Land—Poor People

  2. The Politics of Poverty

  3. Developing the Poor

  4. Confronting Development

  5. Growth and Development

  6. The New Appalachia

  Afterword to the Paperback Edition




  Illustrations follow page 176



  Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People


  Alice Lloyd College Outreach Reserves (later) Appalachian Leadership and Community Outreach


  Area Redevelopment Administration


  Appalachian Regional Commission


  Appalachian Regional Development Act


  Appalachian Volunteers


  Black Lung Association


  community action agency


  Christian Appalachian Project


  Council of the Southern Mountains


  Economic Opportunity Act


  empowerment zone


  Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (later) Kentuckians for the Commonwealth


  Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation


  Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee


  Miners for Democracy


  Office of Economic Opportunity


  President’s Appalachian Regional Commission


  Southern Conference Education Fund


  Save Our Kentucky


  Tennessee Valley Authority


  United Mine Workers of America


  Volunteers in Service to America


  Writing history is like piecing together a quilt. Separately the individual records of the past have little meaning until they are arranged by the historian. The remnants of historical evidence, cut from the context of their own time, are empowered to speak to a new generation by the scholar’s pen, but that process of creating meaning from disparate facts is seldom a solitary effort. So it is with this book. The pages that follow are the product of a lifetime of living and learning in the place that I call home, but they are also the result of a growing body of scholarship, expanding archival collections, and the insights of countless students, friends, and teachers who have influenced my thinking over the years. Subsequent writers may rearrange the pieces of the historical record and reach different conclusions, but that is the beauty of books and quilts. They allow each generation to find meaning from the past that speaks again to the present and to the future.

  I have spent over forty years teaching and writing about Appalachia. Much of that time I served as director of the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center, a multidisciplinary research center designed to link the resources of the university to the public policy needs of the Appalachian region in areas ranging from education to health care, civic leadership to economic development. In that capacity I worked with journalists, administrators, citizens’ organizations, and public policy makers at the community, state, and national levels, including appointments to head several gubernatorial commissions. At the University of Kentucky, and earlier during a decade of teaching at a small mountain college in North Carolina, I attempted to apply my knowledge as a historian to the challenges and issues facing the region, serving on county planning boards, civic groups, and regional organizations and completing a two-year term as the scholar in residence at the Appalachian Regional Commission. The knowledge I gained from my participation in the public process informs my narrative just as much as do the hours of research in historical documents, archives, and books.

  Some of my colleagues would call me a “presentist historian.” I study the past from the perspective of the present to gain insight about those challenges that confront contemporary society. For me, the past is a window to present problems that plague Appalachia and a guide-post for building a more just and sustainable society in a part of the United States that has seen too much inequality, cultural loss, and environmental destruction. My people have lived in the region for more than two hundred years, surviving as farmers, coal miners, mill hands, musicians, preachers, and factory workers. Like other rural Americans, they developed close ties to the land, to family, to their religion, and to their local communities, and they have followed the rest of the nation into the age of consumption. I participated in the great out-migration from Appalachia during the 1950s, the War on Poverty of the 1960s, and the Appalachian renaissance of the 1970s, and I have sat at the table with policy makers as they distributed public funds for the development of the region. In recent years, scholars have gained a much better understanding of the political and economic history of the mountains, but too often we have ignored the lessons of that history, and we, citizens and leaders alike, have continued to abuse each other and the land in our continuing quest for progress. History speaks to us only when we listen.

  Like most books, this one is the culmination of years of research and reflects the contributions of dozens of librarians, archivists, statisticians, students, activists, and scholars throughout the region. The staffs at the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library (especially Kate Black), the Berea College Special Collections and Archives, the West Virginia University West Virginia and Regional History Collection, the West Virginia State Archives, the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington DC, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin deserve special thanks. Over the years graduate students attending my seminars and serving as research as sistants at the Appalachian Center have provided data analysis and criticism through their own work. Among the many students to whom I am indebted are Glenna Graves, Nyoka Hawkins, Tim Collins, Tom Kiffmeyer, Glenn Taul, Phil Jenks, Carrie Celia Mullins, Jim White, Debbie Auer, Tom Riley, John Burch, Jerry Napier, Carlye Thacker, Lori Copeland, Margaret Brown, Roy Salmons, and Jodi Mullins. Several colleagues and friends read early drafts of this manuscript, including Dwight Billings, Rudy Abramson, Ron Formisano, Robert Weise, and Chad Berry. I deeply appreciate their insight and kindness, even though I did not always take their advice. I am, moreover, indebted to the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences for a sabbatical leave, to the Appalachian Regional Commission for a term as its John Whisman scholar, and to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a summer research stipend. Finally, I want to thank my stepdaughter, Sarah Jane Herbener, for many hours of editing a much too long manuscript. Her critical eye and way with words have added immeasurable clarity to my academic prose.

  One person is, however, more responsible for this book than any other, my wife Jane Wilson Eller. Without her steady support, encouragement, and gentle prodding, this manuscript might not have been completed. She alone understands my love for the mountains. After all, this is her story too.

  How America Came to the Mountains

  Jim Wayne Miller

  The way the Brier remembers it, folks weren’t sure

  at first what was coming. The air felt strange,

  and smelled of blasting powder, carbide, diesel fumes.

  A hen crowed and a witty prophecied

  eight lanes of fogged-in asphalt filled with headlights.

  Most people hadn’t gone to bed that evening,

  believing an awful storm was coming to the mountains.

  And come it did. At first, the Brier remembers,

  it sounded like a train whistle far off in the night.

  They felt it shake the ground as it came roaring.

  Then it was big trucks roaring down an interstate,

  a singing like a circle saw in oak,

  a roil of every kind of noise, factory

  whistles, cows bellowing, a caravan

  of camper trucks bearing down

  blowing their horns and playing loud tapedecks.

  He recollects it followed creeks and roadbeds

  and when it hit, it blew the tops off houses,

  shook people out of bed, exposing them

  to a sudden black sky wide as eight lanes of asphalt,

  and dropped a hail of beer cans, buckets

  and bottles clattering on their sleepy heads.

  Children were sucked up and never seen again.

  The Brier remembers the sky full of trucks

  and flying radios, bicycles and tv sets, whirling

log chains, red wagons, new shoes and tangerines.

  Others told him they saw it coming like a wave

  of tumbling dirt and rocks and carbodies

  rolling before the blade of a bulldozer,

  saw it pass on by, leaving a wake

  of singing commercials, leaving ditches

  full of spray cans and junk cars, canned

  biscuit containers, tinfoil pie plates.

  Some told him it felt like a flooding creek

  that leaves ribbons of polyethylene

  hanging from willow trees along the bank

  and rusty cardoors half silted over on sandbars.

  It was that storm that dropped beat-up cars

  all up and down the hollers, out in fields

  just like a tornado that tears tin sheets

  off tops of barns and drapes them like scarves

  on trees in quiet fields two miles from any settlement.

  And that’s why now so many old barn doors

  up and down the mountains hang by one hinge

  and gravel in the creek is broken glass.

  That’s how the Brier remembers America coming

  to the mountains. He was just a little feller

  but he recollects how his Mama got

  all of the younguns out of bed, recalls

  being scared of the dark and the coming roar

  and trying to put both feet into one leg

  of his overalls.

  They left the mountains fast

  and lived in Is, Illinois, for a while

  but found it dull country and moved back.

  The Brier has lived in As If, Kentucky, ever since.


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