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“Give me the streets of Manhattan,” Walt Whitman implored, and Eduardo Porter suggested avoiding rural America, maybe especially Appalachia. Well, I’ve tried both — Manhattan’s concrete for over 20 years — and the mountains of the Blue Ridge and the Smokies and the Cumberlands and the Alleghenies from Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia for most of my life. Give me the mountains, that’s where the future is.
I’m an old-school journalist who covered the news from Appalachia and the South for lots of newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times. To me, Mr. Porter’s recent article on rural America isn’t news; it’s history. He would lead his readers to believe that the talent to propel the future resides in northern Virginia where Amazon recently decided to build one of its new headquarters. Bad move, Mr. Bezos: The best schools and the hardest strivers are in the coalfields of southwest Virginia. Here’s a summary of how Appalachian Virginia schools perform from my friend Frank Kilgore, a St. Paul, Virginia, attorney and advocate for the region:
The latest top high school academic stats just came out from the state in Richmond and show that six of the eight coalfield districts placed in the top 25 of 132 Virginia school districts, placing them into the elite 20% in the state, with Wise County leading the way at number four. The most common denominators for the six high achieving coalfield schools are that they thrive in the state’s second most impoverished region, employ the lowest paid teachers, have the highest student disability rate and exist in areas with some of the state’s highest unemployment numbers. Yet, despite all of these apparent disadvantages, their superintendents, principals, parents, guardians and students show true dedication and grit. Now the real test is keeping this talent in the coalfields to rebuild a strong economy.
Frank and I are part of a group around the mountains working on an idea to revitalize Appalachia that I outlined in a Daily Yonder piece a couple years back. We see an opportunity to fashion a prosperous and safe future in the mountains as the Atlantic rises into coastal cities, fires and droughts cripple food production in California, and cyberwars expose the vulnerability of large urban centers. The real news in the mountains is that people see an opportunity to create the good life that coal and timber exploitation for the last century has prevented.
Broadband is arriving–very late, of course–in many mountain areas and a high-speed pipe runs right through the areas that Frank mentions. Coal miners who have lost their jobs are being retrained as programmers just over the Virginia border in Pikeville, Kentucky. My high school buddies who once ran dairies that failed are growing organic produce under contract to major food chains in Carroll County, Virginia. Communities in “Bloody Harlan” County, Kentucky, are working hard to make the Pine Mountain region a major tourist attraction. Floyd County, Kentucky, next door to Perry County that Porter mentions, is still basking from a visit by Bill and Melinda Gates, who praised the pioneering Betsy Layne High School for all it was doing to turn out the talent needed for this century.
I could go on at great length to report “news” about this Appalachian Awakening. I know the history well, as does most of America: poverty, black lung disease, scarred strip-mined hills, and opioid addiction. It’s time the journalists of urban America get off those streets and spend some time in the hills. The grass is a lot greener and the future is a lot brighter where the birds still sing, where people trade despair for the strength of mountains, and hope springs eternal on the real new frontier. This news is fit to print.
Jim Branscome is a retired managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Business Week, and The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Kentucky. He was a staff member in 1969-71 at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a lobbyist for Save Our Kentucky in Frankfort, and a staff member of the Appalachian Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. He was born in Hillsville, Virginia, and is a graduate of Berea College in Kentucky.