The dilemma of talking about Appalachian poverty

Every once in a while a major media outlet rolls out a story on poverty in Appalachia.  A little while ago The Guardian took a crack at it.  The result is pretty standard for the genre.

In fact, journalists have been making similar copy out of Appalachia since the nineteenth century.  What sets these more recent examples apart is the emphasis on drug addiction and the decline of the coal industry.  (I’ve always found it ironic that one of the stereotypes about Appalachia is the idea that it’s a primitive region where time stands still, when in fact it’s the ideas people have had about Appalachia that have remained remarkably consistent for over a hundred years.)

Poverty is a tough issue to deal with in any context, but addressing poverty in Appalachia is especially thorny.  On the one hand, there are parts of Appalachia in which poverty is a very pervasive and systemic problem, one that bears talking about.

On the other hand, one problem that Appalachians of pretty much all socioeconomic backgrounds face is the prevalence of stereotypes.  And one of the most common stereotypes about the region is the notion that it’s uniformly and singularly poverty-stricken.  So by talking about the problem of Appalachian poverty, it’s easy to contribute to the problem of Appalachian stereotypes.

Furthermore, one of the reasons poverty in Appalachia is hard to address is the fact that many Americans simply tend to ignore what goes on in the region.  And one of the reasons people ignore it is because they think it’s just a place full of incurably poor people.  It’s quite a dilemma.

The only way out of it, I think, is to ensure that when we talk about poverty in Appalachia, we don’t let ourselves adopt the sort of despairing tone that too often characterizes these sorts of discussions, in which poverty is a problem too wide and too deep to try and fix.  And, crucially, Americans must always remember that when they’re talking about poverty in Appalachia, they’re talking about their own fellow countrymen.

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Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society

The East Tennessee Historical Society just opened a special exhibit on Lloyd Branson, one of this region’s most prominent artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The exhibit runs through March 20 and then heads to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve encountered Branson’s work before.  The banner image running along the top of this website is from his painting of the Overmountain Men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, the event that started the march leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The original painting is part of the Tennessee State Museum’s collection, but it’s on loan to ETHS for this exhibit.

Some sources—including yours truly—have reported that Branson also painted the Battle of King’s Mountain itself, but that this work went up in flames when a Knoxville hotel burned down in 1916.  But it looks like the lost King’s Mountain canvas might not have been a Branson work after all.  Adam Alfrey of ETHS tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel that contemporary newspaper reports attributed the painting to James W. Wallace, one of Branson’s students.

That’s not much consolation for the torched painting, though, because Wallace was a fine artist, too.  He did a number of works on regional and historical themes, including a really nice painting of the signing of the Treaty of Holston.  I’m dying to know what his depiction of King’s Mountain looked like.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Barton and Jefferson ride again

Back when Thomas Nelson withdrew David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies from publication, Barton claimed that Simon & Schuster would release a new edition in 2013.  Whatever arrangement he thought he had with S&S must have fallen through, because it never happened.

Two years on, it looks like he’s finally found somebody to reissue it: WND Books, the publishing arm of WorldNetDaily.

If the PR is any indication, it seems that Barton and his associates, like the French monarchists before them, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing:

Despite the wildly popular success of the original hardcover edition, a few dedicated liberal individuals campaigned to discredit Barton’s scholarship and credibility, but to no avail.

Wait, to no avail?  Dude, they found so many errors and misrepresentations that the original publisher pulled it from circulation.  That’s kind of why you’re writing this ad copy for a new edition in the first place, remember?

Nice try with the circumstantial ad hominem, too.  “A few dedicated liberal individuals” sounds so much better than “numerous historians and evangelical commentators.”

I will say, however, that the new cover looks a lot sharper than the old one, so it’s got that going for it.

(Hat tip: Warren Throckmorton)

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Judge gives go-ahead for new housing at Princeton battleground

Here’s the latest news in the long, drawn-out dispute over proposed faculty housing at the Rev War battlefield.  Unfortunately, it’s not the good kind of news, but the Princeton Battlefield Society is going to keep fighting the good fight.

Judge Jacobson’s decision upheld the approval that Princeton’s Planning Board gave the Institute last year for an amended version of the project, which had first been approved in 2012. The IAS wants to build 15 units, clustering eight townhouses and seven single-family dwellings on a seven-acre parcel. The Battlefield Society says the houses would be on land where American and British soldiers fought during the Revolutionary War in 1777.

The Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission blocked the project in 2012 because of its encroachment on a stream corridor, and the IAS tweaked the plans to slightly shrink the footprint. It was that amended application that the Planning Board approved last year. The Battlefield Society said that because of the amendments, the project is essentially new and the IAS should have to start over. The Planning Board did not agree, and Judge Jacobson concurred.

As part of the ruling, Judge Jacobson issued a temporary delay on any start of construction to allow time for the Battlefield Society to appeal.

“We respect Judge Jacobson’s opinion, but we do not believe she’s correct,” Mr. Afran said. “And we believe there are serious failings in what the Planning Board did three years ago and again [in 2010]. They refused to hear relevant evidence. This decision is an error and it ignores all of the duties of the Planning Board to protect historical sites.”

I wish the PBS good luck in the appeal process, and a tip of the hat for their effort to keep this battleground intact.

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Greene Co. repudiates the Confederacy…again

Like much of the rest of East Tennessee, Greene County was heavily Unionist during the Civil War.  When the state held a secession referendum in June 1861, 78.3% of voters from Greene County opposed leaving the Union.

Indeed, one Greene County resident became the most prominent Southern Unionist in the nation.  Andrew Johnson—the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the U.S., military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, and Lincoln’s second running mate—started his political career in Greeneville, and his home and grave are still there.

These are just a few of the reasons why County Commissioner James Randolph’s recent proposal to fly the Confederate battle flag at the courthouse made absolutely no sense.

He wants to see the Confederate flag displayed at the courthouse as a “historic exhibit,” his resolution states.

The resolution also states that the flag should be displayed to honor Tennesseans who fought for the Confederacy and that the flag represents “heritage and history that our county should be proud of.”

The Confederate flag’s display has proven to be a divisive issue, as some say it represents history and heritage while others see it as representative of slavery and oppression.

Randolph previously said in an interview with The Greeneville Sun that the State of South Carolina’s removal of the flag from its state capitol provoked him to propose the resolution.

Just so we’re clear here: Randolph thought it would be a good idea to fly the Confederate flag…

  1. at a courthouse
  2. where there was no traditional display of the flag
  3. to reflect pride in the history of a county whose residents were overwhelmingly opposed to secession in 1861
  4. and which boasts an outspoken Southern Unionist—Lincoln’s second VP, for crying out loud—as a native son
  5. in the wake of a massive groundswell of opposition to the display of Confederate symbols in public spaces

Little wonder that when Randolph’s fellow county commissioners got together to vote on his resolution a few hours ago, they roundly rejected it.  In fact, the proposal received twenty negative votes, with just one in favor.  (The “yea” vote, natch, was Randolph’s.)  That’s even worse than Greene Co. Confederates’ showing in the ’61 referendum.

Of course, what people in the rest of the country will take away from this episode isn’t the commission’s 20-1 vote against Randolph’s resolution, but the fact that somebody made the resolution to begin with.  And that’ll suffice to confirm every ignorant stereotype they have about East Tennessee in particular and the South in general.

I am so, so, so sick of these kerfuffles over the memory of the Civil War.

Greeneville, TN. By Casey Nicholson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Mark Noll is speaking at UTK on Oct. 21

Here’s a really great opportunity for those of you interested in the Civil War and the history of American religion.  Dr. Mark Noll is coming to the University of Tennessee this month to deliver the Charles Jackson Lecture.  His topic is “The Bible and the Civil War: Before, During, and After.”

There aren’t many people in the historiography of religion or the realm of evangelical scholarship that cast a longer shadow than Noll.  His many books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and the forthcoming In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783.  He is Francis A. MacAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of the National Humanities Medal.

The 2015 Jackson Lecture is on Oct. 21 at 5:00 P.M. in UT’s Alumni Memorial Building, Room 210.  It’s free and open to anybody, so come by if you’re in the Knoxville area.


Filed under Civil War

Killing public history in Illinois

Last month it was the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project under fire.  Now the Illinois State Museum is closed indefinitely.

The Illinois State Museum was scheduled to close to the public after Wednesday, but staff whose layoffs have been postponed by a lawsuit are still expected to work.

The closure to the public is a prelude to closing the museum system entirely, a highly controversial move pursued by Gov. Bruce Rauner and strongly opposed by museum staff and unions.

The proposal to close the museum system was announced earlier this year, part of a package of contentious cuts Rauner is seeking to the state budget. Rauner, a Republican, vetoed several appropriations bills passed by the Illinois General Assembly, but despite a supposedly veto-proof Democratic majority in both chambers, the Illinois House has been unable to muster enough votes to override most of Rauner’s vetos. The House and Senate Democratic majorities refuse to pass several anti-union laws Rauner is pushing as part of the budget process, leaving the state with no budget. That has crippled social service providers and put the popular Illinois State Museum on the chopping block.

The Springfield staff of the Illinois State Museum, and its Research and Collection Center at 11th and Ash streets in Springfield, were due to be laid off on Sept. 30, but the union members of the staff received a stay of execution on Sept. 18. Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, said the union was notified by the Rauner administration that the layoffs would be delayed until litigation over state cuts is resolved. The lawsuit in question started as a motion to make the state issue employee paychecks, but it has since been amended to include layoffs and state employee health insurance claims, which the state stopped paying earlier this month.

“Good news!  We’re not laying all of you off…yet.  So even though we’re locking the doors, we expect you to be at work tomorrow.  Oh, and thanks for being stewards of all our cultural and natural resources, I guess.”

For a country that supposedly loves history and embraces its heritage, we’ve got a funny way of showing it.

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