Project Abstract

This project examines the social, political, and cultural consequences of the mid-twentieth century migration of working class white Americans between Southern Appalachia and the Great Lakes region of the industrial Midwest. Between 1918 and 1972, roughly five million people made this journey along the so-called “hillbilly highway,” a demographic event exceeded during the twentieth century only by the Great Migrations and the westward migration of the Dustbowl period and after. In making an argument for the equal importance of the Appalachian migration as these other, more frequently researched and taught internal migrations, this project aims to put the people, cultural practices, and political ideologies of Southern Appalachia at the center of broader processes and events in American history during this period. In doing so, it also offers a novel reconceptualization of the distinct region we know as “Appalachia”, and makes a claim for reconsidering the way the very concept of region figures into scholarly and popular understandings of many of the major political and social issues of the current moment.

Project Alignment with the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies

Though this project begins as a dissertation in American history at Yale University, I intend to expand it to include both pedagogical and “public scholarship” components, as envisioned by the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian and Place-Based Studies. I plan to design and teach a course based on this research, intended for Yale undergraduates, on the cultural and political significance of the Appalachian hillbilly in American history. The history department at Yale currently offers no college-level courses that pertain in anyway to the region, and in doing so continues the historic neglect of this aspect of American history. The course would encompass a longer historical timeline than the dates covered by the dissertation, but it would also focus largely on the twentieth century and on a number of the central concerns of that research. More specifically, it would give undergraduates an understanding of the systematic underdeve lopment of the Appalachian region and the relationship between political economy, place, and migration; the nature of twentieth century working class experience, the mutability of race, and the process of ethnic identity formation through the lens of the experiences of Appalachian migrants to the urban Midwest; and the meaning and significance of cultural representations of the hillbilly in American popular culture and mass media.

The public scholarship component of this project emerges from the extensive use of oral histories to complement the archival record and other source material in recounting the experiences of Appalachian migrants, both in the Southern Appalachian region and in their transplanted homes throughout the urban-industrial Midwest. I intend to conduct oral histories with Appalachian migrants and their families across the geographic scope of this project—which, roughly speaking, spans Eastern and Central Tennessee north to Michigan along the corridor between Interstate 75 to the east and Interstate 65 to the west. The term “hillbilly highway”, a colloquialism that has become common parlance and a familiar cultural signifier across Southern Appalachia and the Great Lakes region, refers euphemistically to this corridor along which so many Appalachian families travelled, and in many ways I think of this project as a social history of the hillbilly highway—its orig ins, passengers, cultural traffic, and socio-political significance. In compiling an oral history of the hillbilly highway, I believe I would be contributing something important not only to the existing scholarship on this migration, but also to the public preservation of the voices and experiences of the migrants themselves. I would hope that the collection of oral histories that I conduct in the course of this research could be transcribed and housed at an institution in the region, like Sewanee, similarly committed to the preservation and public availability of these Southern Appalachian voices.

Project Impact

I see this project and the various forms it will take having impact in three different ways. As a piece of original scholarship, I believe it will impact academic discussions in ways that I have laid out in some detail above and in the attached prospectus (see “supplementary information”). Most basically, the goal of this project is to salvage the Appalachian migration experience from the disciplinary ghettoes of ethnicity and migration studies, where much of the existing scholarly literature has remained, and to bring it into the mainstream of American social and political history. As the foundation for a new course to be offered to undergraduates at Yale (and potentially elsewhere), its greatest impact will be filling what I see to be the almost complete absence of Appalachian studies in the curriculum for most college students, and instilling a deeper and more sensitive understanding of the significance of the region and its people in shaping our recent history and contemporary moment. Finally, as the building blocks of an open-ended oral history collection, the project’s emphasis on preserving the voices and experiences of Appalachian migrants will hopefully be recognized as having a positive impact on the community of Southern Appalachia and “Transappalchia” more broadly by making these oral histories readily accessible to the general public, teachers, other scholars, and interested community organizations.

Final Report