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Hillbillies Are Who We Are!

"You’re no hillbilly!" That’s a phrase I have heard many times mostly in the context of a snide, negative, derogatory slam. One day I even looked up the term in my trusty Encarta dictionary. That definition was so insulting, biased, and off the wall that I reached for my Roget’s Original Thesaurus (the old one that is almost impossible to find anymore). That definition was infinitely more acceptable but still not quite precise enough for me. In a graduate school creative writing seminar a few years ago, I was asked to state my cultural origins and how that affected my writing. My answer was simple, I AM BLACK APPALACHIAN!

Every member of the seminar wanted to challenge my personal assessment. They couldn’t hear the Appalachian dialect in my speech (that’s because the seminar participants didn’t really know what to listen for). There were no black people in Appalachia! I would love to have been an observer in a classroom at Kent State University when a certain professor of African-American studies made that particular pronouncement in front of my daughter. By the time she had to repeat her answer to a professor of ethnic studies at a major southern university, she could name ancestors back to the late 18th Century. Whether she recognized it or not, the fact was that Dori could immediately refute the often misstated fact that black people do not know the history of our families. We know more that we usually talk about…someone in our family or extended family knows.

Our family’s Appalachian heritage began in Virginia around the time of the Revolutionary War. My mother’s great-great grandfather settled in the Shenandoah Valley at the end of that war on land originally surveyed by George Washington. His life could not have been easy, he had to farm the land to support his family. His son, my mother’s great grandfather also farmed the land. There is no record (in the Virginia historical archives) that I have been able to find that says he ever owned a slave (or married for that fact) but there is a record that he filed papers insuring the freedom (from slavery) of his only son, my greatgrandfather.

According my grandfather, the family lived and worked together for many years until shortly after the end of the Civil War. The old man called his son in and said simply , "I’m getting older and soon I will die. I don’t want to send you away but it is time for you to take your family and leave here. This is your home but the rest of my family will never let you keep it when I’m gone." The son was apparently given a wagon, mules, farm tools, and a sum of money to buy land across the mountains. My great grandfather, his wife and five of their six children left Virginia. My best guess is that they followed what became known as the Midland Trail across West Virginia. My brother’s research said that the family spent a year working somewhere along the St. Mary’s River in West Virginia before they travel on to where our family lived on the Kentucky-West Virginia border. The family homeplace where my mother and her siblings were all born was actually the second piece of property the family owned in West Virginia.

Again, the family farmed the homeplace. William Henry, my great grandfather, built his home at the head of the holler (yes, I said holler, not hollow) where the family lived. He also built a schoolhouse and gathered his (black) neighbors together to hire a teacher. He was determined that his family would have an education (maybe because he had to sneak across the mountain to a Quaker lady who taught him to read the Bible!) That schoolhouse had as its first teacher, my grandmother, Mary, and as the last teacher my mother, Elsie. Each succeeding generation inherited fortitude, willingness to work hard, educational direction and a desire for a better life from the elders. We also inherited a strong sense of family. Today we are scattered across the country and involved in all kinds of professions and endeavors. Some are business people, doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, teachers, construction/building trades workers, military, government workers, scientists…etc.

Oh yes, all of us are of Appalachian heritage. If that makes us hillbillies…so be it! We are who we are.

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