Monday, February 17, 2003

'Invisible minority' overcomes stereotypes, embraces origins

By Lisa Cornwell
The Associated Press

[photo] Michael Maloney, the founding director of Cincinnati's Urban Appalachian Council, stands outside the council offices in Cincinnati.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
It's been almost 30 years since Debra Holmes quit going to classes at her Cincinnati middle school rather than be teased about where she came from and how she talked.

Now, she's proud to claim her heritage as a member of what some sociologists call the "invisible minority" - urban Appalachians.

"I was shy and when I did talk, the other kids called me a hillbilly or cracker," said Holmes, 44, who was born in Cincinnati to Appalachian parents, but spent most of her childhood in Clay County, Ky. "When I moved back to Cincinnati at 14, some teachers treated me as if I were stupid. I just couldn't take it."

Urban Appalachians are migrants and the descendants of migrants who have moved to urban areas from the 200,000-square-mile mountainous region that extends along the Appalachian mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi.

Many settled in cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. They are often been referred to as the "invisible minority," because sociologists say they share many of the socioeconomic problems of other minorities without receiving the same recognition as an ethnic group.

"Many of the migrants who settled in the industrial centers came with few skills and little education and ended up in impoverished areas, where they often had to struggle to survive," said Michael Maloney, the founding director of Cincinnati's Urban Appalachian Council and a first-generation urban Appalachian. "They also had to fight against negative hillbilly stereotypes that labeled them as ignorant or lazy."

The migration to industrial centers has been under way for more than a century. Appalachian scholars say it reached its peak between 1940 and 1970, when more than 7 million Appalachians left the region in search of jobs and a better life. Maloney and other urban Appalachians believe that while conditions have improved, many urban Appalachians in inner-city neighborhoods are still struggling to overcome cultural stereotypes.

"Things are better for my children, but we still have a long way to go," said Holmes, who earned a high school equivalency diploma at age 30 with the encouragement of the Urban Appalachian Council.

Maloney, who was born in a log cabin in eastern Kentucky in 1940, came to Cincinnati in the 1960s to study education at Xavier University and soon became involved in a grass-roots effort to help urban Appalachians. That effort led to the 1974 formation of the council, which helps urban Appalachians with education, family services, employment and job training.

Similar efforts were started in the 1950s and 1960s in various northern industrial cities, but few if any of those groups still exist, Maloney said.

Larry Redden, executive director of the council's Appalachian Identity Center, was born in Cincinnati to parents who migrated from Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky.

"We lived in cold-water flats with 10 or 12 people in one or two rooms and six or seven families sharing a bathroom - if there was one," said Redden, 55, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Redden, who went on to earn a college degree, said education is the key to improving the lives of urban Appalachians.

"A lot of my teachers had good intentions, but telling me that the way I talked was stupid made me ashamed of my origins," he said. "A lot of that hasn't changed. We are still seen as the unwanted bastard children of Cincinnati."

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