Urban Appalachia

Cincinnati, Ohio, home of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, is not a place typically included in public discourse on Appalachia because it does not fall within the Appalachian Regional Commission’s defined borders of Appalachia. The Appalachian Mountain chain in the Eastern part of the United States include the Cumberlands of Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as the Black Mountains of Georgia, the Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies, Catskills, Poconos and other ranges of the northeast. Southeastern and Eastern Ohio are in the foothills of the Alleghenies. The federal government defines Appalachia as geographically consisting of 420 counties that extend from northern Mississippi to the southern tier of New York State.

Appalachian Regional Commission Map Subregions of Appalachia

However, Cincinnati is home to thousands of Appalachian migrants and descendants. In the last study of Appalachian census tract populations between 2005 and 2009, there were 35,637 Cincinnati residents identified as Appalachian; in 1970, around the time of the Urban Appalachian Council’s founding (predecessor to the UACC), there were 48,171. Cincinnati is located in Hamilton County, which is adjacent to the westernmost of the thirty-two Ohio counties designated Appalachian by the Appalachian Regional Commission. (Southeastern and Eastern Ohio are in the foothills of the Alleghenies.)

Migration had been occurring slowly from the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee into Cincinnati since the beginning of the nineteenth century, but Appalachia suffered the greatest population decline during the Great Migration of the 1940s to 1960s, when it experienced a net loss of four million residents to Eastern and Midwestern industrial cities like Cincinnati to live in neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine, Camp Washington, East End, South Fairmount and Carthage. The cities of Norwood, Lockland, Elmwood Place and villages like South Lebanon became predominantly Appalachian. Hamilton, Middletown, Dayton, Covington, and Newport also saw the emergence of large Appalachian enclaves.

Many Appalachians were pushed out of the region before World War II by increased job competition arising from high birth rates and the overall low number of available jobs. At the same time they were pulled out of the region by the north where immigration laws limited the available workforce and encouraged industries to look to Appalachians to fill low-wage positions. Then after World War II, new postwar industries recruited Appalachians, pulling them away from their ancestral homes. Meanwhile, the extractive industries in Appalachia like mining, timber, and agriculture pushed residents out after mechanization that further reduced already sparse job opportunities in the region.

This push and pull model of migration left millions of Appalachians displaced from their homes and created a new Urban Appalachian diaspora. In fact, over the last fifty years, a majority of Appalachians have become urban dwellers, whether in migrant cities such as Cincinnati or in urban centers within the Appalachian region.

As Appalachian migrants formed substantial communities in urban areas like Cincinnati, the existing neighborhoods they moved into responded negatively to their presumed deficits, terming their presence the “SAM (southern Appalachian migrant) problem”. The repercussions of what Cincinnati residents perceived as the “SAM problem” were of greater magnitude than just derogatory nicknames; Appalachians in Cincinnati were the victims of “active discrimination” that negatively affected their job opportunities, education, health care, living conditions, and sense of identity and community.

 

Appalachian Advocacy

In the 1960s, grassroots efforts began by the group known today as the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition (UACC), formerly Urban Appalachian Council (UAC), who emerged in the 1960s began to develop organized responses. Appalachian leaders and their allies formed priority boards in Dayton, HUB Services and the Urban Appalachian Council in Cincinnati, Brighton Center in Newport, and Covington Community Center in Covington, among others. A network of community based GED schools were organized to respond to the dropout crisis. Community-based health centers were established and eventually Cincinnati Public Schools created K-12 community schools in Lower Price Hill and East End.

Notably, since the UAC/UACC’s founding, the standard-of-living for urban Appalachians in Cincinnati has steadily improved, creating positive impacts on the urban Appalachian condition in Cincinnati. Yet despite our successful advocacy for a better Cincinnati for Appalachian migrants and migrant descendants, there are still many measures by which Appalachians do not stack up against non-Appalachians in Cincinnati. These discrepancies signal that the need for education, cultural engagement, and advocacy among urban Appalachians still exists in Cincinnati.

 

Urban Appalachians

Today Most urban Appalachians are employed. Most work in blue collar jobs. Like other working class people, many work two jobs in order to make a living wage. Some are self-employed in hard work occupations such as tree services, roofing and food services. Some still work in good paying union scale manufacturing jobs. Most of those retired from such jobs are homeowners living well into their later years. Appalachians occupy many service and professional jobs in health and social services and education. Many elected officials and government workers are Appalachian. Cincinnati, Covington, Moraine, and Dayton have all had Appalachian city council members and mayors.

Deindustrialization, globalization, and recession have taken their toll on the urban Appalachian working class. Most of our people have been able, with remarkable resilience, to adapt once again to tough times. Most have been able to sustain their strong nuclear and extended family networks. Hundreds of churches throughout the region sustain large Appalachian congregations. Some, like Landmark Baptist and Solid Rock, are among the largest Protestant churches in the region. Appalachians are still a dominant force in labor unions and some veterans’ groups.

However, research on the social assimilation of descendants of Appalachian migrants in Cincinnati in 1980, forty years after the Great Migration, and then again in 1989 and 2001 reveal the economic and educational barriers that existed and continue to exist for many urban Appalachians, especially those within the urban core. The particular economic, educational, and social disparities that still exist in Appalachian neighborhoods in Cincinnati distinguish them from the rest of the city’s population. It is these disparities that, while recognized by some Appalachian scholars and advocates, go largely disregarded in terms of minority concerns in the city.

Thus community advocates call Appalachians in Cincinnati “ the second minority” or“ the invisible minority”. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition (UACC) believes that the first step toward improving the conditions of urban Appalachians is to raise awareness and a positive regard among Appalachian Cincinnatians about their own cultural heritage and identity. We believe that the Appalachian spirit is still strong and can be mobilized to help our communities—and our neighbors— survive and thrive.

 

NOTES

We understand much of our history thanks to the work of early documenters and historians, such as James Brown, of the University of Kentucky, Harry Schwartzweller, and thanks to the work of the earliest organizers of the UAC, members of the ongoing UACC Research Committee. Click here to view UACC’s bibliography of Appalachian Resources. A more complete story of Appalachian organizing and advocacy within the region is told in books such as: Transforming Places: Lessons from Appalachia (Fisher and Smith), Downtown, Down Home (Obermiller), Too Few Tomorrows (Obermiller and Wagner), Appalachian Odyssey (Obermiller and Wagner), From Diversity to Unity: Southern and Appalachian Migrants to Uptown Chicago, 1950-1970 (Roger Guy), and Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles (Chad Berry).