by Mike Templeton

The uses for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Story Gathering Project are seemingly endless. It stands out as an oral history of urban Appalachia in Great Cincinnati. One of the things that has emerged in the Story Gathering Project is the many ways second and third generation urban Appalachians relate to Appalachian life and identity. While younger people necessarily become removed geographically and chronologically from the Appalachian region, the notion of being an urban Appalachian changes and takes on new meanings.

We frequently use the term “urban Appalachian” as if it is a self-evident category, and there was a time when we generally knew what we meant when we talked about urban Appalachians. This idea has become blurred over time as second, third, and even fourth generation urban Appalachians have become prominent in greater Cincinnati. With the changes that we see over time, the concept of being urban Appalachian has become indistinct. A study by Robert Ludke et al that appeared in Appalachian Journal in 2010 found that“only 31 % of those with family roots in Appalachia identified themselves as Appalachian” (Appalachian Journal, 39-40). For many people in the greater Cincinnati area who have family roots in the Appalachian region there is some difficulty in identifying as Appalachian as generations move further away from the original migration patterns.

I encounter this frequently in writing about urban Appalachian life and culture. Many people who have family in places like Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Eastern Ohio talk at length about their family ties to these regions, but a large number of these people do not identify as Appalachian themselves. The authors of the above study did point out that many people have trouble with the term “Appalachian” and associate it with more derogatory terms like “hillbilly,” and they have come to distance themselves from these associations. Others simply do not make a connection between their lives and the homeplaces where their families originated. The conclusion of the article calls for more study since the problem of claiming urban Appalachian identity changes depending on how the question is asked.

We can see evidence of these dynamics in UACC’s Story Gathering Project. While those who are originally from Appalachia talk at length about Appalachian identity and heritage, those who are removed by a generation or more find the category difficult to pin down. Core member Pauletta Hansel’s interview with poet Sara Moore Wagner is a case in point. Even within Wagner’s family there is disagreement over how to identify as Appalachian. Some of this stems from real family trauma and tragedy, and some of it is the product of how her parents identify with their Appalachian roots. Wagner is from Jackson, Ohio—deep in Appalachian Ohio, but her family history stretches into Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Herself a product of the circuitous movement from Appalachia to urban Columbus and then West Chester, Wagner’s identification with the urban Appalachian phenomenon is both proud and conflicted. 

Growing up largely in Columbus and removed from Appalachia, Wagner came to view the idea of “being” Appalachian from within often conflicting dynamic of her parents. Wagner explains that “my mom took me to the Appalachian Festival every year.” However, she continues and explains that while she was working on her collection of poems, her mother told her: “Don’t make me seem like a hillbilly; your dad’s a hillbilly.” Wagner’s father “embraced the stereotypes,” as she says, and because of the rift between the parents, her mother wanted to distance herself not only from her father but from all that may appear “hillbilly.” The overall impression one takes from Wagner’s experience is one in which identifying as Appalachian comes with internal conflict. On the one hand there are the points of pride for her family’s Appalachian heritage, and on the other hand there is a need to distance themselves from aspects of being Appalachian. Sara Moor Wagner has written about this conflict in her award-winning book, Hillbilly Madonna. You can also read more about Wagner and Hansel’s experience of being Appalachian women in this interview by Salon.

Another example from the Story Gathering Project is Core member Ashely Hopkins’s interview with Ryan Martin. Currently a resident of the historic neighborhood of Lindenwald near Hamilton, Martin had a typical suburban childhood in Fairfield. His ties to Appalachia come largely from his grandmother who grew up in Clay County, Kentucky. While Martin talks at length about visiting the area where his grandmother came from, his sense of being an urban Appalachian is largely distant. As for many second and third generation urban Appalachians, it comes from family stories and trips to their homeplace. Martin describes his life growing up as being typical of a middle-class suburban teenager. Appalachia is something he feels ties with, but perhaps does not bear down on his sense of self as much as urban Appalachians of times past.

Even just from these two interviews, we can gain insight into the findings presented in the study in Appalachian Journal. To identify as Appalachian can become an open question as younger people become distant from Appalachian places, life, and culture. Still, what we see clearly in these two interviews on the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Story Gathering Project is that ties to Appalachia and a sense of being urban Appalachian remain in place. The legacy of Appalachia bears down on us even after family trauma or the simple passing of time would suppress these ties. These are the kinds of details that emerge in the Story Gathering Project that make it such a valuable resource and such an exciting project to take part in.

If you would like to participate in in the Story-Gathering Project, full information, complete with guiding questions, can be found at this link:

Links to interviews discussed in this article:

Hansel/ Wagner interview:

Hopkins/ Martin interview:

LUDKE, ROBERT L., et al. “Identifying Appalachian Adults: An Empirical Study.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010, pp. 36–45. Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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