Clarification appended Dec. 2, 2019.
During President Obama’s reelection bid, a radio commentator stated with certainty that the conservative “hillbilly firewall” would hinder a second term in the states with sizable Appalachian districts. The prediction was not a compliment to our mountain region on many fronts but does prove that stereotyping mountain residents appears to be the last politically correct bigotry promoted by much of the media.
Not that facts should get in the way of a pithy slur, but maybe we should use the coalfields of Virginia as a potential counter weight. Norton, Virginia, started its Little League program in 1951 and expressly included black kids, the only program to do so in the entire state (and likely in the former Confederacy). Charlottesville’s team won the eastern title and demanded that the black Norton players be taken off the team before the state title game could commence. Norton, being the only Little League program in western Virginia, made the state final by default. Consequently, no one knew how this brand new team would play against a decades old programs.
Ironically, 1951 was also the year that the University of Virginia’s law school in Charlottesville went to court to prevent a black student from entering those elite hallways. Gregory Swanson had all the qualifications for admission except the color of his skin. UVA lost on appeal, and Gregory made history. He wasn’t allowed to live on campus and was roundly ostracized so ended up leaving UVA early but went on to practice law. (The University of Virginia Law School sends this clarification: UVA Law School did not block Swanson’s admission — the Law School accepted Swanson’s application, as detailed in this article: https://www.law.virginia.edu/uvalawyer/article/long-walk. Furthermore, Swanson did not leave because he was ostracized. He completed his curricular studies at the Law School, which lasted one year via the LL.M. program (a J.D. takes three years of study, an LL.M., or master’s of law, is one year). To obtain a degree, you had to complete a thesis (as the article also explains), and Swanson did not complete his thesis, which was fairly common at the time. Another alum, Mortimer Caplin ’40, ended up hiring him to work as a lawyer at the IRS.)
Meanwhile, Norton’s Little League sponsors and coaches refused to reject their black players and would have won the state title by forfeiture had the segregated team failed to show. Instead, Charlottesville came to Norton to pummel the integrated upstarts and lost, 12-3. A decade earlier, in Russell County, the 1938-9 Dante Central High School football team became Southwest Virginia’s first integrated sports teams and, again, likely the first in Virginia and the old Confederacy to do so.
In the late 1950s UVA’s branch in Wise County, known as Clinch Valley College at the time, admitted a female black student to its two-year program despite resistance from the mother ship in Charlottesville. Clinch Valley’s inaugural chancellor, Dr. Joe Smiddy, famously replied when told the applicant was black: “What color is her money?” And he promptly let her in.
Even before the Virginia coalfields broke the color barrier, Helen Timmons Henderson became one of the first two women to win 1923 races in the state legislature, only three years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowed females to vote. Helen and her husband helped establish the Baptist Mountain School in Buchanan County, one of the largest coal counties in the state. She was nominated to run again two years later but passed away before the election. Her daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson, succeeded her late mother in 1927 and worked tirelessly for better education and roads for her adopted mountain homeland. Not only did coalfield voters elect two women legislators within one decade but they both were “outsiders” from Missouri, yet much loved due to their unbridled devotion to children and education.
Speaking of supporting women, only six female lawyers have been appointed by the Virginia General Assembly to the Supreme Court in the state’s 243 year history. Interestingly, three of them (yes, half) are from coalfield Virginia and had, as their primary sponsor, Del. Terry Kilgore, a Scott County Republican farm boy. Cynthia Kinser, of Lee County, stands at the first and only woman to become a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Not bad for Virginia’s last frontier.
Retired Justices Elizabeth McClanahan and Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser, and newly installed Justice Teresa Chafin
Despite this long history of inclusion, I have many times been called upon to account for racism and sexism in the coalfields by my friends from other sections of the state and “up North.” I point out that although Virginia’s coal camps were indeed racially segregated mostly by coal company built housing and schools, the races and ethnic immigrants shopped together, ate where they chose, went to the same movie houses, worked side by side in very dangerous conditions every day and belonged to the same union. When mine disasters occurred, rescue teams went in after their trapped “brother” regardless of race or place of origin.
Appalachian mining camps were made up of tens of thousands of immigrants from Poland, Italy, Hungary, and many Slavic countries. The early 1900s issues of the United Mine Workers Journal spread union news in three language sections, English, Italian and Slavic. Wise County’s 1920 census shows that 5% of its population was Hungarian immigrants and their children. This “melting pot” throughout coalfield Appalachia rivaled New York City and San Francisco in population and proportion. McDowell County in West Virginia, which borders two Virginia coal counties, was so inclusive of its very large population of African Americans-who migrated there from the Deep South in the early to mid 1900s — that it was dubbed “The Free State of McDowell.”
I dutifully provide whoever will listen with more examples of our libertarian coalfield culture including the fact that coalfield Appalachia represented a sizable pro-Union sentiment before and during the Civil War, resulting in the formation of present day West Virginia. Virginia coalfield counties bordering Kentucky strongly resisted Rebel requisitioning of their crops and livestock toward the end of the war and a majority of Appalachians in Northeast Tennessee rebelled against the Confederacy to the point that President Lincoln requested that one of his most trusted generals reward them for their loyalty and as a result Lincoln Memorial University was founded in Harrogate. Today, LMU provides mountain students and young people from around the globe with opportunities to become doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, allied health care specialists and business and education majors. I usually get blank stares from my buddies as I count the ways we are far different than the stereotypes they are so apt to inhale and repeat. I am not sure if the stares are due to disbelief, awe, or not understanding my mountain dialect, but they are painfully hilarious nonetheless.
But back to the history-making first and second presidential runs made by our first African American president. Those two votes supply ample evidence to find that racism here in the Appalachian coalfields is not as pervasive as political pundits like to portray. For example, in Southwest Virginia the 9th Congressional District runs from Salem westward to Cumberland Gap. It is conservative territory no doubt, but the past three pre-Hillary Democratic presidential candidates, Gore, Kerry and Obama (all three arguably the most liberal U.S. Senators at the time) garnered roughly 39% of the vote.
The obvious question then is if we are such racists, how did Barack Obama pull virtually the same percent of votes as two of the whitest guys in America? It is no big surprise that President Obama did very poorly here in his reelection bid because by that time his attitude toward coal, gun rights, late-term abortions, and marriage were well known. And Hillary did not help her cause when she promised to cut out the highest paying blue collar jobs in the region and, by implication, averred that Appalachians were amongst the most deplorable of the deplorables. Agree with the coalfield majority’s stance on these issues or not, the 92% white voting bloc here gave President Obama his equal share of moderate to liberal votes until it became clear how he felt about us “clinging” to guns, Bibles and the American flag. Voting “no” to his second term after that revelation was based mostly upon fact-driven democracy, not racism. And let’s not forget Doug Wilder’s historic 1989 victory as the nation’s first African American governor. He carried five of the seven coalfield counties by margins from 54-62%! Meanwhile he barely carried Albemarle with 51%.
In other words, our coalfield region had a history of inclusion way before more genteel regions of Virginia were ordered by courts to do so. Court ordered integration in the coalfields happened almost seamlessly, while some other Virginia jurisdictions privatized public schools to try to avoid the law. It took many years in some parts of the state to reach full compliance and a few scholars opine that our cities have inched back toward segregation “light.” The list of coalfield libertarianism attitudes continues.
So a memo from the “hillbilly firewall” is in order to our fellow Virginians and the talking heads who negatively assume too much (or too little) about our mountain character: Look at the race and gender relations history of the place you call home, compare it with ours and, with all due respect, find another whipping boy.