If you’re an Ohio briar you might be familiar with Dayton’s Mountain Days Festival, a local celebration of the culture and heritage of Appalachian people. It has usually taken place annually since 1986 at Eastwood Metropark, though has been postponed for lack of funding in 2010 & 2011. Those not familiar with the connection between Dayton and the geographic center of Appalachia might find it puzzling to encounter an Appalachian celebration in that city, and therein hangs the tale of the Appalachian Diaspora.
Briars, first off, are what (some) Ohioans call workers transplanted from Appalachia. In the mid-twentieth century, Dayton was the port of entry for many Appalachians migrating from KY, TN, and VA looking for jobs as the coal mines were dwindling. After World War II, when factories such as General Motors were heavily recruiting, 7 million migrated north. The whites tended to settle in Ohio and Pittsburgh, while the blacks tended to settle in Detroit and Baltimore.
“It has been said that all mountain regions must import capital or export people,” says John Alexander Williams in his thoughtful Appalachia: A History. “During most of the twentieth century, Appalachia did both.
“With only their labor to invest and in numbers that exceeded the region’s capacity to support its population through agriculture, forestry, and mining, most Appalachian migrants had little choice but to go wherever work could be found. Local leaders never willingly embraced a solution that deprived mountain localities of workers and voters.
“Nevertheless, migration remained a fact of Appalachian life throughout the 20th century. The Appalachian core sustained a net population loss through migration as early as 1910, but such losses were disguised, up until the 1950 census, by a relatively high birthrate and by the seemingly temporary nature of war-related migration during the two world wars.”
The moves were traumatic for many as they were separated from their families and forced to adapt to more urban environments. Appalachians also faced a lot of discrimination, characterized as stupid because of their accents and preconceptions about hillbillies, and such challenges have extended into the present day. The next generation children who are born and raised in cities such as Dayton often lack a sense of belonging, for they do not have a strongly felt connection to the south, but they do not completely fit in where they are either, due to the stereotypes and discrimination they face.
“The impact of out-migration was particularly pronounced in West Virginia, which sent generation after generation of young adults to other states,” Paul Salstrom tells us in Appalachia’s Path to Dependency. “One study, a 1941 survey of Lewis County, West Virginia, noted that ‘the principal export product of this area appears to be children.’”
And Mary Hufford observes in From Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: “Between 1935 and 1955, the introduction of mechanical loaders revolutionized deep mining. Nationwide, in the 1950s, some 250,000 miners (60 percent of the workforce) lost their jobs, overwhelming their pension fund.
“In addition, small operators unable to afford the industry-wide standard were driven out of business. Fifteen mines on Coal River (WV) shut down, and between 1951 and 1961 coal production declined dramatically. The roads leading out of Coal River to the factory towns in the north received a new name: Hillbilly Highways. ‘You had to learn the three r’s,’ said Shorty Bongalis, ‘Reading, Writing, and Route 21. And if you couldn’t swim, you better have help crossing the Ohio River.’”
Dayton, Detroit, Columbus, Ashtabula. One thing they all have in common: they’re at the end of the Hillbilly Highway.
Paul Salstrom, Appalachia’s Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region’s Economic History, 1730-1940 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), p. 117.
Mary Hufford, From Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley /An Overview at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/tending/essay5.pdf
John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History (UNC Press, 2002)