By Mike Templeton
The 52nd Annual Appalachian Festival featured numerous exhibits that demonstrate the rich culture of Appalachia. Some of these exhibits allowed people to see some of the ways Appalachian life made it to places like Cincinnati during periods when people were migrating from the mountains to the cities. Perhaps the most revealing and powerful of these exhibits is “Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit,” a project of UACC’s predecessor, The Urban Appalachian Council, which tells these stories in images and text from interviews with the people who lived these experiences. Members of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition were on hand to guide people as they viewed the exhibit.
“Perceptions of Home” is a collection of photographs by Malcolm Wilson and interviews and other writings by Don Corathers. The exhibit is displayed in a manner that some may interpret as imposing since it is not a traditional set of matted images with textual embellishments. Core member Maureen Sullivan was involved with the exhibit from the beginning in the mid-1990s. She explained that the display (designed by Tom Allison) is made of “solid wood planks and some corrugated metal which are very substantial– not ornamental” and that the choice of materials offers “a kind of message in itself about the people/community portrayed in the black and white photos.” Indeed, the juxtaposition of the rustic and the industrial is a visual metaphor of the urban Appalachian experience. Wilson’s photographs stand out against these planks and offer an ideal mix of stark imagery and the warmth contained in the faces of the people who were interviewed for the project.
The interviews and images of “Perceptions of Home” offer a first-hand account of the urban Appalachian experience. These stories run the gamut of triumph and heartbreak, and Wilson’s images allow you to put a living human to the story you read. The exhibit reveals these stories and images, and each is displayed on one panel that is about 3.5 feet by 7 feet. Maureen Sullivan said that one family group is displayed on two panels in order to convey their stories in a way that is faithful to them as a group.
The stories of Appalachian migrants who left their homeplaces for cities like Cincinnati have much in common with any group of people who found themselves displaced. Moving from the mountains and hills with the hope of a better future in urban areas is a tale that can be told by people around the world. What became immediately apparent in creating “Perceptions of Home” was just how strong the attachment to home was and still is for so many Appalachians. Don Corathers told me that it became clear that “for Appalachians who had moved away to a city, the feelings for their homeplaces was particularly intense.” Yet, even as urban Appalachians maintained their feelings for home, they persevered in their new urban home against tremendous adversity. Maureen Sullivan added that the exhibit serves as “a real testament to the many, many folks who left their home area in the mountains and foothills and worked to establish themselves in this area. It took grit and determination. It was not easy, either for the adults or the children, especially for the people who came later with fewer resources.” Perhaps it was that deep connection to the homeplace and the ways of life they knew in Appalachia that provided them with the strength and fortitude to survive and succeed in the city.
“Perceptions of Home” also provides us with a look at the diversity and complexity of the many kinds of people who came to be known as urban Appalachians. Just as the people of Appalachia are not a singular group so the migrants who came to call the city their new home were also a diverse group. Again, Maureen Sullivan explains that the exhibit shows us the diversity of who the migrants were – male and female, black and white, varied ages, skills, and backgrounds…” Looking at the faces of these people, the many kinds of people, helps us to strip away any preconceived notions of stereotypical ideas we may have of urban Appalachians. Don Corathers explained that the people selected for interviews and to be photographed were chosen according to a few criteria, and one thing they were after was a way to represent the diversity of urban Appalachians.
Everyone I spoke to about the “Perceptions of Home” exhibit seemed to agree that one of the most striking features of the urban Appalachian experience is the powerful attachment to home. No matter where Appalachian people may travel and live, it is the hills and mountains of Appalachia that remain their home. Don Corathers summed this up when he told me that urban Appalachian people go back to their homeplaces for any important event or for the holidays, and “the homeplace is where they want to be buried.” No matter how much urban Appalachians may have come to shape the cultural life of cities like Cincinnati, it is the Appalachian region itself that holds them. One may make the case that by sustaining these ties to Appalachia, urban Appalachians were able to enrich their adopted cities in ways that we take for granted now. There is really no way to imagine greater Cincinnati without the features of Appalachian culture that have come to define all of us.
“Perceptions of Home: The Urban Appalachian Spirit” is currently stored in preparation for its next appearance. There are plans to create a website for the exhibit that will offer this powerful work as a resource to a wider audience. Malcolm Wilson said the University of Kentucky has archived all the negatives from his photographs and will eventually make these available for viewing online. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition will make all of this information available as soon we are able.
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.