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Appalachian studies scholar helps dispel stereotypes of the diverse region

By Jane Nicholson

BOONE—Appalachia is as diverse as the 13 states the mountainous region occupies. And yet when people think of Appalachia, many continue to picture an area settled or inhabited by descendants of the Scots-Irish who lived in isolation from the rest of the world.

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Dr. Katherine Ledford, program director of the Appalachian studies program at Appalachian State University, works to dispel that notion.

“That’s a narrative that’s very popular and very comfortable to a lot of people,” Ledford said.

“One of the things that we do as Appalachian studies specialists and that the Appalachian Studies Association does is work to dispel some of those ideas of the region as homogenous and get people to think about the African-American experience in Appalachia, the experience of Eastern Europeans in the coal field regions in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, and the Jewish heritage of Appalachian communities.  A lot of people don’t really recognize that or want to think too much about that,” she said. “They get comfortable thinking about Appalachia as a place where people are all white and from a certain ethnic origin.”

Appalachian studies emerged as a distinct field in the 1960s and 1970s, Ledford said. It was part of a growing interest in identity politics, including women’s studies, African-American studies and Native American studies. “The academic field rose out of that same attention to the fact that the ‘whole story’ was not being told,” she said.

The field expanded to include a focus on urban Appalachia, including the migration of people from the mountain region to cities such as Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit in the early to mid-20th century.

“I think that’s where people get the idea that there were never any black communities in Appalachia, because those communities lost a lot of members after so many African Americans moved to the Northeast, Midwest or West as part of The Great Migration in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s,” Ledford said. “Beginning in the early 1980s, Appalachian studies scholars highlighted the rich heritage and traditions of African Americans in the region, work that continues today right here in Boone in the Junaluska neighborhood, the historically black section of town.”

Ledford added that certain European ethnic groups, entering areas already occupied by Native Americans, tended to congregate in different sections of the Appalachia region, making it difficult to see the diversity of the whole region. “Sizable populations of Scots-Irish, German and French people settled in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. Central Appalachia drew immigrants from Italy, Wales and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, who came to the area to work in the coal mines. Immigrants from Germany settled in Pennsylvania and migrated down into Virginia,” she said.

“It’s a real mixed group,” Ledford said. “Appalachian studies scholars have spent the last 30-odd years trying to dispel a lot of stereotypes about homogeneity and acknowledge the diverse communities that have historically comprised the region.”

Being stereotyped helped lead Ledford to her interest in Appalachian studies.

“When I went to college, I became aware of how people thought about me and what assumptions they made about me because of my accent,” said Ledford, who grew up in Mitchell County.

“Then I saw a PBS documentary about Bascom Lamar Lunsford who started the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. The entire episode featured scholars who were writing about Appalachian stereotypes. I was just amazed. I had no idea that anyone else had ever thought about this stuff or that there was anything out there that I could read about what I had seen and experienced. That lit a fire under me.”

Appalachian recently hosted the 36th annual Appalachian Studies Association conference, a three-day event that drew more than 1,000 participants from across the U.S. and abroad. Scholars and others presented papers or participated in panel discussions on topics ranging from the changing landscape of Appalachian literature and religious diversity in Appalachia to the fight against mountaintop removal and localizing the Appalachian economy.

“Members of the Appalachian Studies Association approach Appalachian studies and the Appalachian region from many different critical perspectives – literature, history, politics, sociology and religion,” Ledford said. “There also is a sizable activist community, community engagement, community nonprofits. That’s one of the things about this conference that’s appealing to many. It’s not just academics.”

Trends in Appalachian studies include digital access to information, which Ledford said is a powerful tool for the next generation of Appalachia scholars.

Another trend is looking at the region’s international connections. “Historians and others for the last 20 years or so have been pointing out that Appalachia has never been isolated and is not today,” Ledford said. “It has always been part of regional, national and international trade routes.”

The region has been part of the international economy since the first contact between Europeans and Native Americans occurred and the pelt trade between America and Europe began. “More scholars are thinking about ways Appalachia participated in global economies and are recognizing that the Appalachian experience has connections to and things to say about other regions in the world,” Ledford said.

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