Please welcome guest writer Elaine McMillion. McMillion is an award-winning documentary storyteller living in Boston, MA. Originally from Southern West Virginia, McMillion’s work explores stereotypes and underrepresented communities and issues in the United States. Her latest project, “Hollow,” is an interactive, online documentary that focuses on the lives of people living in McDowell County, WV.
Born in Abingdon, VA, and raised in Logan County, WV, my formative years were full of irreplaceable cultural experiences. From listening to my grandfather play the fiddle and tell tall tales to gazing at old photos of my Scottish ancestors while eating pickled corn at family gatherings, I always recognized and respected my family’s unique history and traditions.
When I graduated from West Virginia University in 2009, I looked around me and saw a place that I loved very dearly, a place that I consider to be one of the most beautiful areas in the country and a place where I had been shaped into the person I am today. Despite my love for the state and my family’s presence there, the lack of jobs and opportunity for a young filmmaker drove me away.
With age I’ve grown prouder of my Appalachian heritage. Living away from the mountains I’m able to see how truly unique my home is compared to the rest of this country. When I meet a fellow West Virginian in Boston, we do not skip a beat and are immediately bound by our roots. In our fast-paced and transient society today I feel lucky to have an instantaneous connection with people I come across that call the Appalachian region home. We share so much in common even though we know very little about each other. This is a feeling and connection that I hope generations to come can experience.
However, when I return home and see parts of my beautiful state suffering from youth exodus and population loss, also known as “rural brain drain,” I can’t sit back and watch it happen. I also can’t help to think that this threat of depopulation has an effect on cherishing and continuing the traditions of our state.
My latest documentary project, “Hollow,” documents the history and culture of McDowell County, one of the regions of my home state that has lost more than half of its population. The community participatory and interactive documentary is my way of representing the hardworking people of my state who have been stereotyped for years, as well as exploring possible options to help save communities just like the ones I grew up in. I am part of the problem; I am the face of youth exodus, and I would like to find some solution that could bring all of us back.
By the mid-20th century, Welch, the county seat of McDowell County, had become the capital of North America’s coal energy empire and provided opportunities for thousands of Irish, German, Italian and Hungarian immigrants pouring in from Ellis Island, and African-Americans traveling from the Carolinas and Virginia.
But the situation in McDowell County today is very different. From 1950 to 2010, the population of the county has diminished from 100,000 to 22,000. Located in the coalfields, the area has experienced the effects of a boom and bust economy, but its experience is similar to many rural towns across the country.
What happens when residents flee, schools consolidate, homes get boarded up, businesses shut down and churches close their doors? What effect does this have on the preservation of history and culture? McDowell County is full of some of the richest history in America, including being home to the first memorial in the nation dedicated to the memory of Americans who gave their lives for their country in WWI.
Despite the rich and unique history, a lot of national media portrayals of Southern West Virginia and Appalachia focus solely on the negative aspects of our culture. This surface-level reporting increases stereotypes and affects the local knowledge and identity of the community. I believe it is time that we let the community take control of their identity and allow them to amplify their own voices and ideas.
“Hollow” aims to create an online community that will address the issues, history and culture through the personal lives of residents. In addition to data visualizations, balloon mapping, archival footage and documentary portraits produced by the “Hollow” team, the HTML5 website will feature community-generated content.
Our hope is that through storytelling and the creation of multidimensional images, the community members will begin to see their environments and neighbors in a new way and begin to work together to preserve the history and make positive contributions to their communities. The “Hollow” project team feels that we can no longer ignore the issues of rural America and Southern West Virginia.
It is time that we pay attention to population loss and its effect of turning vibrant communities into empty ghost towns left with no trace of history and culture.