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Carter G. Woodson’s West Virginia Wasn’t ‘Trump Country,’ it Was a Land of Opportunity

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For young Carter G. Woodson, West Virginia shimmered in the distance, a not-so-far-off land of opportunity.

Of his decision to set off for this frontier as a teenager in the 1890s, the future “father of Black History Month” wrote that his home state of Virginia, “like most of the worn-out South, was passing through an age of poverty and to escape the hardships that endured in that state, younger Negroes went as workers to build railroads and open the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.” Neither did it help that, due to his father’s meager earnings as a carpenter, Woodson could only attend school when it snowed or when agricultural production was slow.

Part of a precursor wave to the Great Migration that propelled Southern Black people across the nation, Woodson (1875-1950) listened to his brother, Robert, who had relocated and glowingly reported the prospects in West Virginia. Woodson saw manna in the mines and followed his sibling to the southern part of the state.

In predominantly white Appalachia, Woodson continued his education and sharpened his interest in history. He wrote a few pieces that were remarkable in their early focus on Black people in a region that was, then and now, more diverse than contemporary stories of its white poverty and Trumpian politics imagine. Though his memories of West Virginia and research on the region make up a tiny share of his voluminous writings (which include the classic text The Mis-Education of the Negro), they are important contributions and correctives to versions of Appalachian history that define Appalachia by whiteness alone. Woodson may arguably be considered an intellectual pioneer in Appalachia studies, a field that became an academic discipline so late that, in 1966, West Virginia University librarian Robert Munn could still quip that “more nonsense has been written about the Southern Mountains than any comparable area in the United States.”

Woodson’s first stop in West Virginia: Nuttallburg, a boomtown that was later a pet project and fuel source for car magnate Henry Ford. As Woodson remembered in a 1944 recollection in his Negro History Bulletin, it was during his time in Fayette County that “my interest in penetrating the past of my people was deepened and intensified.”

The National Parks Service (which maintains historic Nuttallburg, which was abandoned in the 1950s) estimates that Black laborers made up almost 25 percent of West Virginia coal workers by 1909. Many served as coal loaders who filled the trucks. The work was dirty and dangerous: Early 20th-century reports of mine deaths document the violent deaths of Black Americans, Italians, Poles, when giant wedges of earth crushed them or when coal powder combusted and started fatal fires. But the wages were better than sharecropping or farm work, workers could leave early if they met their day’s packing targets, and though towns such as Nuttallburg separated black and white workers (in this case, with their residences on a separate side of a creek), they came with lodging.

African-Americans — some of them “leased” out while serving jail sentences — did the backbreaking and sometimes fatal work of laying railroad tracks that would shuttle the coal from the mountains to hearths nationwide. Woodson was among them, manning the line that traveled from Thurmond to Loup Creek until he found “more desirable work” in Nuttallburg’s coal mines and a part-time teaching gig.

In Nuttallburg, Woodson found a kindred spirit in Oliver Jones, who ran a tearoom for black workers. In Jones, he found a subject of a 1944 personal recollection, where he recalled this modest shop that was the nerve center for Nuttallburg’s black working class. The cozy setting was an alternative to the price-gouging company store, which “sold the essentials of life at prices from 60 to 100 per cent [sic] more than they were offered elsewhere. There was no objection, however, to Oliver Jones’ selling ice cream, fruits and especially watermelons, which he bought by the carload.” The autodidact Jones became a friend who was just as eager for conversation as Woodson.  

Jones’ tearoom was both a sweet shop and a layman’s library. A former cook who had been injured in a mine accident, Jones could not read. But he impressed Woodson with his curiosity and broad intellectual interests. The two struck a deal: Woodson could eat to his heart’s content — for free — if he read newspapers to Jones and the Black men, many of them also illiterate, who frequented the shop for provisions and camaraderie. Woodson understood that Black people barely a generation removed from slavery, coal miners and laborers of all sorts, and mountain people had minds and interests that went beyond their often back-breaking work.

Jones and Woodson’s relationship was an intellectual bonanza for Woodson. He had read newspapers to his father, but had few publications to savor back in Virginia because “Negroes and poor whites could not spare funds for such a purpose, and we had to depend on stale news.” West Virginia miners had more disposable income, and while some spent it on gambling and alcohol, Jones spent his money on books and magazines.

Woodson wrote that Jones “bought interesting books on the Negro — J.T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx, W.J. Simmons’ Men of Mark, G.W. Williams’ Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, and others giving the important contributions of the Negro.” Jones also subscribed to newspapers for Black West Virginians, including Christopher Payne’s The Pioneer, and periodicals from Cincinnati, Toledo, and Pennsylvania. And his salon entertained Black visitors, who debated topics as varied as the role of blacks in the Civil War, whether the dollar’s value should be tied to gold or silver, and the white populist politicians who organized for workers rights. “In seeking through the press information on these questions for Oliver Jones and his friends, I was learning in an effective way the phases of history and economics.”

Woodson would go on to Kentucky’s Berea College; the University of Chicago; and Harvard, where he earned the second doctorate in history awarded to a black student (the first went to another scholarly polymath, W.E.B. DuBois). But much of his formative learning — inside and outside classrooms — happened in Nuttallburg and in Huntington, West Virginia, where he moved to attend high school as a young adult and then accepted a principal post at Douglass High School.

Since education was of the push-and-pull factors that propelled Woodson to West Virginia, it’s not a surprise that he trained his eyes on chronicling Black education in the state. In a 1921 paper titled “Early Negro Education in West Virginia,” Woodson noted both the small numbers of Black people in the state — some 13,000 had been enslaved in the mountainous counties — and the varied efforts to establish schools for this population. Himself a teacher in a West Virginia school, Woodson detailed the names and achievements of his fellow educators, sometimes commenting about their qualifications and failures to meet his high standards.

Woodson, often known for his acerbic wit and vocal denunciations of anything that assumed black inferiority, had remarkably little to say about white resistance to black education. Writing about Storer College, a school established in Harper’s Ferry, Woodson only wrote, “This institution, of course, had its opposition. But wherever there was a helpful attitude toward the Negro, the work which it was doing in spite of its difficulties stood out as a shining light.”

However, snippets from Woodson’s writings reveal a less sanguine view of white attitudes toward Black Americans who lived in Appalachia. In The Mis-Education of the Negro, he remembered meeting a “very faithful vestryman of the white Episcopal Church” who boasted of participating in an 1891 lynching of four Black coal miners in Clifton Forge, Virginia. And making a living may have been particularly difficult for smaller groups of Black professionals in West Virginia; as Woodson relayed, a simple land purchase he made from a white lawyer was delayed by six months because he had hired a Black attorney to see the process through. When Woodson inquired about why the transaction was taking so long, the “white attorney frankly declared that he had not taken up the matter because he did not care to treat with a Negro attorney; but he would deal with the author, who happened to be at that time the teacher of a Negro school, and was, therefore, in his place.”

In his 1944 article, Woodson shared the tale of a run-in between this father, who had also moved to West Virginia, with his supervisor on the railroad. At 25, Woodson was an adult and now a school principal, but he so loved hearing his father’s railroad cronies tell Civil War tales that he delivered his father’s Sunday breakfast — typically, a child’s errand — with little complaint. On one occasion, his father’s white railroad supervisor, only identified by the last name Wynnsong, got too exuberant in his praise of the Confederacy. The debate turned to fisticuffs, and “the employer got the better of the boss,” Woodson said. Wynnsong demanded the elder Woodson be fired to no avail, but the mechanic in charge banned all discussion of the War Between the States.

Those conversations probably lingered in Woodson’s mind. In 1916, Woodson published an article titled Freedom and Slavery in Appalachian America, one of the few pieces to tackle this topic at the time, in the Journal of Negro History he had founded just three years earlier. He compared the German and Scotch-Irish settlers of the “West” to the planters of the coastal regions. Woodson rhapsodized over what he argued was a love of democracy among the hard-scrabble settlers of the mountains, citing abolitionist movements in Kentucky and West Virginia as well as well-documented resistance to state and elite control:

“In the mountainous region the public mind has been largely that of people who have developed on free soil. They have always differed from the dwellers in the district near the sea not only in their attitude toward slavery but in the policy they have followed in dealing with the blacks since the Civil War. One can observe even to-day such a difference in the atmosphere of the two sections, that in passing from the tidewater to the mountains it seems like going from one country into another. There is still in the back country, of course, much of that lawlessness which shames the South, but crime in that section is not peculiarly the persecution of the Negro. Almost any one considered undesirable is dealt with unceremoniously. In Appalachian America the races still maintain a sort of social contact. White and black men work side by side, visit each other in their homes, and often attend the same church to listen with delight to the Word spoken by either a colored or white preacher.”

Woodson’s view was part reality and part romance: Swaths of whites in Appalachia resisted the Confederacy’s call to arms, but were also not as dependent on remote state governments or on slavery for economic survival. Typically small numbers of black residents and few community buildings did sometimes make for shared spaces — including schoolhouses — that were not segregated or policed in the same way or with the same rigor as they were in the South. But though Woodson got education and achieved some professional mobility in Kentucky and West Virginia — he later became a dean at what is now West Virginia State University — sometimes unsegregated didn’t mean racial utopia.

That’s one of the lesser told stories of Appalachia, stories that include Black migrants who mined coal and dreams on the frontier; former slaves who called the region home and became today’s “Affrilachians”; and small, intimate communities that simultaneously upheld and sometimes undermined Jim Crow. That was Woodson’s world. And as Huntington’s current mayor Steve Williams said during a recent Black History Month commemoration that featured Carla Hayden, the first Black head of the Library of Congress, “Woodson changed the world from Appalachia, he changed the world from Huntington, West Virginia, and his roots run deep here.”

Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a historian and journalist who works as the senior editor at Rewire, the leading online news source about reproductive health, rights, and justice. And, yes, she’s Black and has roots in Appalachia. Follow her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.  

Appalachia

Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination

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The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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Appalachia

From Corn Liquor to State Pride – Origins of ‘West by God Virginia’

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Trish Hatfield with her husband Jim and their son Ben. Trish’s question “Where does the phrase, ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” won West Virginia Public Broadcasting's latest Wild, Wondering West Virginia poll. Photo: Courtesy of Trish Hatfield

Here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we’ve been asking listeners what they wonder most about West Virginia.

The latest question that won out in an online poll came to us from St. Albans resident Trish Hatfield. She asked, “Where does the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” WVPB reached out to experts across the state and discovered one of the first times the phrase was found in a publication — and we have a good idea why it has stuck around.

“West by God Virginia” is an idiom many West Virginians know well, but its exact origins have traditionally been less well-understood. 

West Virginia University linguistics professor Kirk Hazen did some digging for us into the phrase. The earliest printed version he found was in a Virginia magazine published in 1926 called “The Virginia Spectator.” It reads:

“And it is, we believe, the only way that corn can be mixed and presented to a girl — except the iron plated ones from West (by God) Virginia.”

The article was written by students at the University of Virginia who, in the middle of the prohibition, are likely alluding to making alcohol, Hazen said.

He said the quote is basically saying West Virginia women can hold their liquor.

“And the implication here is that they are accustomed to drinking homemade corn liquor,” he explained. “So, they can handle it without having to mix it up in certain concoctions.”

Hazen discovered this publication with the help from a Google Books application called Ngram Viewer. It’s an online tool that sifts through a massive digital database of millions of publications in several languages.

This screenshot of Google’s Ngram Viewer shows a peak in the published phrase “West by God Virginia” in the early 1960s — perhaps due to the centennial celebration of West Virginia in 1963. Credit: Courtesy of Kirk Hazen

Hazen said the phrase likely appeared in written form earlier than 1926, but to confirm that it would take months of sifting through physical documents, such as newspaper clippings, journals, books and magazines.

Hazen found another early publication of the phrase in 1939 in an academic article published by WVU’s English department. The phrase is found in a footnote written by Harold Wentworth. The quote explores the possible history behind “West by God Virginia.” It reads: 

“Among phrases so formed is the well-known ‘West by God Virginia.’ But the expletive insertion here is more syntactical than morphological. One story of the origin of this phrase, true or not, is that a native West Virginian, irked at being called a Virginian, retorted with an intonation that can only be suggested here, ‘not Virginia, but West by God Virginia.’” — Harold Wentworth, WVU department of English, 1939

The exact origin of “West by God Virginia” as a spoken phrase is difficult to pinpoint.

Hazen points out how most spoken language is almost a living organic thing — not something that’s tracked, monitored, sorted or in databases.

But Hazen and other experts say there’s a good chance the phrase made its first oral appearance sometime after West Virginia became a state in 1863. But they say this is educated guesswork.

WVU Linguistics Professor Kirk Hazen. Hazen found one of the earliest uses of “West by God Virginia” in a publication from 1926 about corn liquor. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

We spoke with another expert from West Virginia University. Associate Professor Rosemary Hathaway specializes in American folklore and literature. 

Hathaway has been working on a book that explores the cultural history of the term “Mountaineer.” She points to parallels between the origins of “Mountaineer” and the phrase “West by God Virginia.”

“The first time the term Mountaineer shows up as a synonym for West Virginian is before statehood,” she noted.

Hathaway said before we separated from Virginia, there was a legislator from Harrison County who sent a letter to a newspaper in Richmond expressing annoyance that his region, western Virginia, was not being fairly represented in the Virginia Legislature. 

And when he signed that letter?

“He signed it, not with his name, but as a Mountaineer,” Hathaway explained. “So, I sort of see that as being parallel to the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ in the sense that it’s just kind of a way of reminding both ourselves and outsiders that we are distinct from Virginia, and we have a unique identity and a unique history as West Virginians.”

WVU Associate English Professor Rosemary Hathaway. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

But none of this answers the underlying question —  why did people start inserting “by God” into the name of West Virginia? 

The use of “by God” in language dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, but it became commonplace in the 1600s, according to Eric Waggoner, the executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council. Waggoner is also a retired history of English teacher.

Waggoner said “by God” has always been used as a way to emphasize something. He sees the inclusion of it in “West by God Virginia” as an expression of pride, when so much of the world perceives West Virginia in a negative light.

“There’s been a sort of narrative about West Virginia that focuses on illness; it focuses on poverty; it focuses on hard times; it focuses on this sort of thin, cultural and educational infrastructure; a lot of things that are here that need attention and that people who live here know intimately,” Waggoner explained. 

He said many West Virginians are tired and fed up with this negative narrative, and by adding “by God” into our state name, our identity, it allows us to reclaim our image. 

“There’s a kind of expression of pride, not just in place, but in being a person who is from this place, that ‘West by God Virginia’ seems to articulate in a very handy, in a very positive way,” he said.

Even though the exact origin of the spoken phrase may be difficult to find, Waggoner and others said today it’s often used to illustrate West Virginia as unique and separate from Virginia – that, by God, we are here, we exist and we have our own identity as West Virginians.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Appalachia

How Leaving Home Can Help Appalachia

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This article was originally published by expatalachians.

Appalachian folk have a complicated relationship with leaving. It’s a tension that shows up in regional media all the time: In stories about small towns working to keep their young people, about Appalachian millennials leaving New York to go back home, and, more negatively, about how folks in the region should just pack up and get out of dodge. 

This isn’t one of those stories. As one might surmise from the name expatalachians, I’ve already left Appalachia, and I’m not certain I’ll ever live there again. And although I’m sympathetic to helping young people stay in the region, I also understand why they choose to leave. As I’ve written about elsewhere, folks have moved into and out of Appalachia looking for a better life for over a century, and I won’t begrudge the current generation for doing the same.

Instead, I’m interested in discussing the possibilities leaving presents for Appalachia. Rather than enjoining people to stay or shaming them for going, I would argue conversations about leaving the region should instead focus on how to incorporate the Appalachian diaspora into regional conversations from where they are. Doing so successfully would not only expand our view of the Appalachian experience but also, with millions of Appalachian migrants and their descendants living outside the region, meaning we could better draw on migrants’ diverse backgrounds and resources in addressing Appalachia’s problems.

Doing this properly means wrestling with several fundamental questions. The one I would like to address here is where Appalachian migrants should fit in discussions about the region. Having left the region, to what extent can and should migrants claim a seat at the table in conversations about Appalachia, and when might their voices usefully contribute to discussions of its issues?

This question has gained increased urgency following the publication of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, a descendant of Appalachian migrants raised in Southwest Ohio. I don’t care much for JD Vance’s views on Appalachia, or the solutions he offers to its problems. However, in addition to critiquing Vance’s arguments, a particular line of Hillbilly Elegy criticism has focused on his lack of Appalachian credentials due to his being raised in Middletown, Ohio. 

Wherever you come out on the debate, this line of criticism highlights the ambiguities Appalachian migrants face in trying to address the region. On the one hand, I personally find it hard to deny Vance’s identification as Appalachian. Although not part of Appalachia, the region where he grew up, southwest Ohio, was a major destination for Appalachian migrants in the 20th century, and the Appalachian migrant identity remains relevant there. Furthermore, I fear this kind of territorial gatekeeping threatens to exclude those in the diaspora who sincerely and legitimately identify as Appalachian.

On the other hand, Appalachian migrants, including Vance, must also recognize their unique position in speaking from outside the region. Just as a well-off professor in Morgantown has a different experience from a glassmaker in Clarksburg, so too is an Appalachian migrant’s experience of the region different from someone who stays. Those of us who’ve been outside the region for several years must accept that both we and the region may have changed since our departure, and that our experiences “abroad” mean we can no longer claim to speak as “typical Appalachians,” if we ever could. 

Moreover, while we may strongly identify with the region and its people, we must also accept that, in having left, our stake in the game is different from those who remain. As such, our role and our degree of power in deciding the future of the region should be different.

Of course, this does not mean migrants have nothing to contribute. On the contrary, in return for giving up our claims to being typical Appalachians, we have gained new experiences and insights that can benefit the region if used properly. One of expatalachians’ founding goals was to create a place to share and debate these insights. Almost one year on, I’m proud of the fresh perspectives we’ve been able to inject into conversations about Appalachian historypoliticseconomicsenvironmental issuesliterature, and more. 

What other forms Appalachian migrant organizing may take remains an open question. In the past, migrants have created explicitly “Appalachian” organizations to agitate for better public services, state-specific clubs to commemorate their heritage, and hometown associations to network and reminisce. 

As we are currently undergoing a renaissance in Appalachian organizing, diaspora activists would do well to look back on these experiences and think creatively about what kind of community they hope to create, and to what end. Whatever form it takes, for me Appalachian migrant organizing means prioritizing at least three goals.

First and foremost, in light of the Appalachian identity movement’s uncomfortable relationship with racism and exclusivism, we must strive to build a diverse and cross-sectional movement that includes Appalachian migrants of all backgrounds, regardless of race, class, indigeneity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor. 

Secondly, while preserving a personal connection to the region is important in Appalachian migrant organizing, we must also seek to critically address and work toward resolving problems back home, be it through scholarship, donations, economic investment, volunteering, activism, or other endeavors. These problems must include not only pressing issues affecting the region, like the opioid crisis and poverty, but also deeper structural factors that are often ignored, including the present-day realities of racism and colonization. 

Finally, to return to my original point, we must organize in solidarity both with fellow migrants and with folks back home while being cognizant of our different positions. This shouldn’t just be an Appalachian migrant investment fund that seeks to “innovate” Appalachia while maintaining control. Rather, we must strive to build meaningful relationships and organizational structures between migrants and home communities so that, in seeking to promote positive change, we don’t take power away from the region and the people ultimately supposed to benefit from it.

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He is also a 2007 recipient of the West Virginia Golden Horseshoe for exceptional knowledge of West Virginia history. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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