A person of importance walked into the room and kindly asked each of us our name, and where we each called home. When my turn came, I said, “I’m Rich Goodman, from West Virginia.” The asker quickly responded with a smile, “So your parents are first cousins?” Recycled jokes like these are not uncommon, but this was the first time that it had come from someone with this level of influence. Whether from the power differential, or from growing accustomed to such comments, I turned my head and did not respond. This same person would soon-after apologize for several minutes, acknowledging that the comment was inappropriate, and assuring that it was not something they would typically say.
Growing up, I had heard many negative stereotypes associated with folks from my home state, but when it was suggested that there was a real bias against West Virginians, I was unconvinced. The West Virginia I know is full of kind, humble people that take pride in what they do, and care for others. Some West Virginians have devoted their career to serving as advocates for the state’s culture and its people. For greater context about how to address this underlying disparity between perception and reality of West Virginia, I interviewed three of these advocates with the varying perspectives of a historian, a professor, and a U.S. Senator.
Stanley Bumgardner serves West Virginia’s Division of Culture and History as editor of its quarterly magazine, Goldenseal, and has built a reputation as a proud voice of West Virginian culture and history. Bumgardner explained that the development of these stereotypes was a product of several societal circumstances.
“When there are big barriers to moving around, distinct cultures are created within those regions,” he said.
Though some Cherokee and other Native Americans remained within Appalachia, many tribes tragically faced forced migration. Mostly Scotch-Irish immigrants began to move into the mountains to build houses and farms. Large parts of our mountainous state were not as accessible from areas that were quicker to embrace modernization, leaving higher-populated areas to develop an opinion of West Virginia only from what they had read.
“After West Virginia became a state in 1863, one of the first things that the country read about our little state was twenty-five years later when a feud broke out in southern West Virginia,” added Bumgardner. “This story was all over the country about extreme violence, and killing without reason. The depiction was that all of West Virginia was this way, and that you better expect to be shot at if you go to West Virginia. This was the nation’s first impression of our state, and for a lot of people, that didn’t go away.”
Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt, professor of English at Shepherd University and coordinator of Shepherd’s Appalachian Studies Program, shared a similar perspective with Bumgardner about the impact of literature. “In the latter part of the 1800s, everyone gained their pop-culture awareness through reading magazines and other publications, and they really believed what they read,” she indicated. “People were really interested in places that seemed exotic, so some publications really exaggerated and sensationalized the idea of the ‘hillbilly.’ This image began to become the national mindset, and soon spread across the country.”
Shurbutt described how, from this origin, the stereotype grew with more specific characteristics. “Soon, all West Virginians were believed to be inbred, stupid people that all played the banjo and danced in a funny way. This caricature of what we are pervades even today, with modern media depictions of the hillbilly.”
As this public image was being developed, West Virginia was also beginning to face significant economic struggles, which would only perpetuate negative perceptions of the state. Some challenges associated with development in West Virginia led to specific industries taking advantage of an otherwise self-reliant community.
“Throughout West Virginia, people have always been very much tied to the land,” asserted Bumgardner. “For a long time, if you lived here, you made your living off of the land. Many West Virginians still do, and to a great extent, that is by choice. Many feel connected with the mountains, rivers, and farmland. When some new industries became established throughout the 1800s and 1900s, many people left farming to pursue the promise of opportunity. Whether in coal, timber, or apples, this shift tied the people of West Virginia to the ups and downs of industry.”
To that end, the Mountain State has struggled to establish a stable foundation to maintain a competitive and thriving economy. This has been apparent in countless examples of movements for workers’ rights, safety, and wages. The most notable example of this was so violent that it was deemed “The Battle of Blair Mountain,” of the Coal Wars. These events again put West Virginia in the national spotlight, not only regarding economic insecurity, but also perpetuating the stereotype of violence and social instability. Labor union strikes have continued for almost 150 years, including a more recent (less violent) example that gained national fame through the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike just earlier this year, inspiring teachers’ movements across the nation.
“West Virginians have had more than our fair share of tragedies,” continued Bumgardner. “A lot happens in a rural industrial state. In the last fifty years, some jobs have become safer, but historically, coal mining has been one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.”
Platform for Change
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin began this interview by referencing several tragedies that impacted him growing up in the coal fields around his home in Farmington (WV), including the death of close friends and family. “We’ve always done the heavy lifting, and we’ve never backed away from the tough jobs that built this country and helped to defend it,” he asserted. “As governor and now as senator, I’ve seen the resilience of the people of this state. Whether a tragedy comes in the form of the floods like those we saw in 2016, or the mining disasters that I saw growing up, I’ve seen the people of this state rise to meet those tragedies with kindness and strength. When I was being raised, there were no social services—that help came from within, from the community around you. People help each other here, and we are all a product of that grit and that support. We’re forged out of these mountains and hills. These are tough people.”
Bumgardner echoed Manchin’s nod to community. “To me, there are a lot of West Virginias, all very West Virginia in their own respect,” he proposed. “Whether in the panhandles or the coalfields, they’re all distinct places pulled together by commonalities. Despite our occasional rough exterior, these are the first people to bring food when a neighbor loses a family member. We pitch in and help friends, neighbors, and relatives. Whether it’s tragedy or celebration, we’re going to be there with you.”
Shurbutt and Bumgardner also alluded to some of the different communities that came together to form the culture that we celebrate today as West Virginian. “There is a Celtic heritage to many residents of West Virginia, but the state culture and population was originally comprised of Italians, Spaniards, Germans, Cherokee, and African Americans,” said Shurbutt.
“We have traditions of passing things down through generations,” said Bumgardner. “This has kept some traditions alive, such as our music. Mountain music was handed down from a blend of Scotch-Irish traditions and African American culture—instruments like the banjo. After working twelve- to fourteen-hour days, people sat around the fire and played tunes handed down for generations, and ensured they were played right. We honor people that have worked to hone their skills. Whether it’s a handmade quilt, homemade sugar, or an old xylophone, there’s a personal touch that helps us appreciate the people that came before us. It’s sometimes seen that that’s how we all live because we know no other way, while in reality, many are celebrating our culture.”
Shurbutt and Manchin each shared advice conducive to realizing a more positive image. “Read the literature, find the writers, and study the history of West Virginia. Education is our platform for change,” Shurbutt stressed.
Manchin added, “Sometimes we even defame ourselves, but we need to get that out of our mind. That’s a lack of confidence, and a lack of who we are. We’re blessed with the greatest people and some of the greatest venues you’ve ever seen—mountains, valleys, streams, and country side. Don’t sell yourself short. The next time that someone asks you where you’re from, there might be a joke, but you proudly say West Virginia—and that when they come here, they might want to stay.”By Rich Goodman