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Stories about Modern Appalachian Life

HISTORY+CULTURE
Kituwah, which is considered the place of origin for Cherokee people. Photo by Aaron Morgan on Flickr.

“I was like a tumbleweed, I wasn’t rooted, but I understand now that our DNA is of this land.”

— Amy Walker, an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians elder

AMY WALKER, 79, gets emotional each time she drives from her home in Cherokee, North Carolina, to Kituwah, a sacred site just seven miles outside of town, to tend to her four-acre garden. There, in the place where her ancestors settled thousands of years ago, she plants heirloom beans and corn, the same crops they once grew.

An elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), Walker says the garden keeps her connected to her identity as an indigenous woman. “Down where there are 1,000 graves on the land,” she says. “Our ancestors’ spirits are there.”

Kituwah, known as “the Mother Town,” is considered the place of origin for the Cherokee people. It is one of 25 known mounds in western North Carolina and Tennessee that once stood at the heart of every village and contained sacred fire before the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homelands in 1838 and ordered to walk 1,000 miles to Oklahoma. The land they left behind was colonized and redistributed to white settlers. More than 150 years would pass before the EBCI would have the opportunity to reclaim ownership of land that was once theirs.

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Story by Sheyahshe Littledave
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Taking a cue from drive-in theaters, one Va. church has moved its pulpit to the parking lot. Photo by Nicholas Erwin on Flickr.

“If I thought I did something and maybe one of my church members perhaps caught the COVID-19 and died from that, I don't know how I could live with myself.”

— Dr. Kendell Smith, Sandy Level Baptist Church

On Sunday morning in Sandy Level, Virginia, about an hour southeast of Roanoke, upbeat gospel music blares from speakers as cars pull past the sign that advertisesthe drive-in church. Churchgoers tune into 87.9 FM and honk their horns in greeting.

This isn’t a usual weekend, but Sandy Level Baptist Church is no stranger to unconventional forms of worship. Every summer Sunday, from May until September, the clergy holds “boat church”: Pastor Kendell Smith ministers to a floating congregation from a dock on a nearby lake. When Virginia went into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the pastor didn’t skip a beat; the next Sunday, the drive-in service was up and running.


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Story by Annalise Pasztor
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Downtown Wytheville in the 1950s. Photo is part of the Wythe County polio epidemic exhibit at Wytheville’s Thomas J. Boyd Museum.

“There were signs posted at each end of town saying don’t stop, but come back later. People would just fly down Main Street wearing face masks.”

— Jean Lester, who was 13-years-old in the summer of 1950

As Wythe County hunkers down with the rest of the country to ride out the coronavirus pandemic and hopefully slow its progress, many can’t help but remember: we’ve been here before.

It was 70 years ago, but people still talk about it. The local museum has an exhibit dedicated to it. In the summer of 1950, 20-month-old John Seccafico, the son of a local minor league baseball player, came down with polio.

The crippling illness swept through Wythe County like no other place in the nation, earning the town the infamous honor of having the highest number of polio cases per capita in the country. By the epidemic’s end later that summer, the Wytheville area reported 189 cases of the virus and 17 deaths, or almost 10%, twice the national average. Most victims were children.

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Story by Millie Rothrock, Wytheville Enterprise
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Photo by K-State Research and Extension on Flickr.

“At 14, I could’ve pointed out everybody who would be dead of overdose today, and I would’ve been right. If I can do that at 14, how are we letting them fall through the cracks?”— Nikki King

Nikki King was 17 years old when she left the mountain hollow where she was raised by her grandparents and sneaked off to the University of Kentucky under cover of darkness. It was 2009, and the advice of her late grandmother Sue King echoed in her head as she drove: Leave. Go to college. And do not let anybody from the bigger, wider world think they’re better than you.

Sue died of a heart attack in 2000, when Nikki was 9. The opioid epidemic had already begun to infiltrate eastern Kentucky by then, and in Nikki’s mind the drug problem turned into a drug crisis shortly after Sue’s death, when her family went from sleeping with the screen door unlocked to buying new doors—without glass panes, which could be knocked out by burglars. Around that time, Nikki went to a birthday party where her friend’s mom stumbled and smashed the cake into the kitchen counter. Nikki later found her passed out on the toilet, surrounded by vomit and pill bottles.

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Story by Beth Macy
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Photo by Claudio Schwarz @purzlbaum on Unsplash.

“I said, 'I'm going to stand here in your lobby until someone of authority can get him help or tell me where to get help for him.'” — Carolyn Vigil

Carolyn Vigil was lying in bed next to her husband when she first saw the meme. It noted West Virginia had no reported cases of coronavirus, and jokingly pleaded for its people to hang on.

She remembers it so well because it's the day her husband James began to feel sick in their Shepherdstown home in the West Virginia panhandle.

Her husband was sick from Covid-19. But her "coronavirus-free" state wasn't set up to test him.

He would become the state's Patient #1. They didn't know it then, of course, nor did anyone else. But in the following days they felt like that they were the only people in the state who wanted to find out. From medical professionals who simply had no information to health administrators in the same boat, all the way up to the President saying the state was doing a good job for having no cases.

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Story by Mallory Simon
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Annetta Coffman has watched neighbor after neighbor get cancer. Five years ago, her son, Dalton Kincaid (left), was diagnosed, too. Photo by Matt Eich.

In a narrow shadow of land between two steep mountainsides in West Virginia, residents of a town called Minden are dying. Not in that existential “we’re all dying a little bit every day” way, but in the blotchy-lesions-and-tumor-riddled-organs-that-eventually-stop-working way.

The 250 residents are all that’s left of a community that peaked at about 1,200 in 1970, and they think they know what’s picking them off one by one, in a relentless, who’s-next roulette. They can’t avoid it in their homes. Or in their backyards. Or on the grounds of the abandoned factory where kids ride their dirt bikes. Locals have taken to calling Minden’s main road “Death Valley Drive.”

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Story by AC Shilton
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HISTORY+CULTURE

“If they hear the music playing, they'll come down from the field when the organ’s playing...It’s got a really big sound, and they're drawn to it.”


— Connie Bailey-Kitts

There is a tradition in Appalachia of observing “Old Christmas” on January 6. Folklore suggests that animals speak in the middle of the night on Old Christmas.

But it turns out, you don’t have to wait till January 6 to hear goats singing to Christmas carols.

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Story by Roxy Todd
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Photo by National Park Service on Flickr.

“I was going to go home from dinner, give her a bath, put her in the bed with me, and when we decided she was a bobcat, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d probably better not do all that.’” — Jill Hicks

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. –While driving recently, Jill Hicks saw what she thought was a domestic kitten dart across the road.

“I pulled over on the side of the road, got out, got it,” she said. “It did run a little bit, but not fast and not far, and it crouched down. I picked it up, put it in the car with me. It climbed all over me.” 

After consulting with neighbors, Hicks realized what she rescued was actually a baby bobcat.

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Story by WDEF/CNN
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Photo by Steve Tatum on Flickr.

“I have never seen Harlan County more unified than it has been now.”

— Rene Cobb Cornette, wife of former Blackjewel Miner

Out-of-work Kentucky miners who are blocking a coal train to demand unpaid wages from their bankrupt former coal employer on Tuesday took a big step closer to returning to work — and getting at least some of the money they are owed.

A federal bankruptcy judge on Tuesday signaled approval of Tennessee-based Kopper Glo’s purchase of Black Mountain and Lone Mountain mines in Harlan County as part of bankruptcy sales of Blackjewel’s mining operations in four states.

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Story by Chris Kenning
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Image from Library of Congress.

“To sit and watch my dad struggle, not knowing how he's going to pay his water bill or his electric bill, is just devastating.”

— Sasha Templeton, daughter of former Blackjewel Miner


CHARLESTON, W. Va. — They started their day sipping coffee at 4:30 a.m. in a darkened Harlan parking lot, coal mining helmets tucked under their arms.

By dawn, more than 40 laid-off Kentucky coal miners — who spent the week blocking a Blackjewel coal train in a protest gone viral — were singing "You’ll never leave Harlan alive" as their bus snaked through four hours of Appalachian mountain roads.

The Harlan County miners piled out in front of a Charleston federal court wearing “Pay the Miners First” T-shirts, aiming to press a judge overseeing coal producer Blackjewel’s bankruptcy to grant millions in owed wages after the company’s July 1 collapse sent paychecks bouncing.

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Story by Chris Kenning
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HISTORY+CULTURE

"It should be criminal that you can write over $5 millionworth of bad checks and nothing happen to you."

— Collin Cornette, former Blackjewel Miner 


CUMBERLAND, Ky. – Protesting Kentucky coal miners will enter their fourth day blocking a coal train from leaving a bankrupt Harlan County mine on Thursday, demanding weeks of back pay on the same day their former employer’s assets are set to go up for auction.

Images of frustrated coal miners playing cornhole on the railroad tracks helped draw national attention to the July 1 bankruptcy of mining company Blackjewel, which came without warning and sparked financial turmoil when paychecks bounced.

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Story by Chris Kenning
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HISTORY+CULTURE
Photo by Dean Hinnant on Unsplash

Word about the art exhibit spread across the campus of Mary Baldwin University almost as soon as the show opened at the Staunton, Va., school. It was Nov. 5, just a day before the divisive midterm elections. Senior Tanisha Parson remembers hearing about the controversial use of Confederate monuments, which were incorporated as silhouettes into dozens of art pieces, before she even reached the doors of the Lyda B. Hunt Gallery. Still, she was not prepared for what she saw.

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Story by Mark Lynn Ferguson
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