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In search of the Hillbilly Highway

Nancy McNiven-Glenn (left) and Carole Baker

This is part one of a two-article series looking at the legacy of Appalachian culture in Detroit. 
 
The first I heard of the 20th century Appalachian influx into Detroit—the "Hillbilly Highway" migration, as it's often called—was my own move here in 2013. This was an Appalachian migration of sorts, as I was born and raised in West Virginia, though moved to Detroit from Brooklyn.
 
I was part of a long line, it seemed: between 1940 and 1960, seven million Appalachians left their home. During World War II, men from all across the South came north to work in the war factories, and then, when Appalachian coal jobs decreased due to automation, to booming industrial cities like Chicago and Detroit. I became curious about these Appalachians who'd arrived decades before I had, about what their experiences were like and where they ended up.
 
The Hillbilly Highway was an out-migration with both push and pull. Henry Ford already owned coal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Northern companies recruited Appalachians, whom they equated with mechanical aptitude and a strong work ethic. They also believed its workers to be "safe," or unlikely to unionize.
 
It also helped that, according to Thomas Klug, Marygrove College history professor and director of the college's Institute for Detroit Studies, many Southern migrants planned to work up north then move home with their earnings. This plan dovetailed with auto companies' needs for seasonal workers to supplement their core staff of settled Detroiters, a more diverse group of higher-skilled workers and homeowners.
 
"Employers want a highly mobile force that they can hire and fire, and when you fire them they leave, and when you want them, they come back," says Klug. "It fits in perfectly with the migrant strategy. You work really hard and make a lot of money relative to the sought, you take that money and go back, and maybe you can set up a gas station or buy a piece of land."
 
In the Midwest as a whole, however—according to "Appalachian Odyssey," a multidisciplinary academic study of the migration—the "overwhelming majority" of Southern whites who came north looking for work found it and stayed in the area, eventually moving out to the suburbs or the rural fringes of their communities where they could buy land and plant gardens.
 
Some migrants chose to leave Appalachia behind completely. One West Virginia-born couple interviewed in "Appalachian Odyssey" consciously adopted Chicago and, later, Virginia as their homes and the sources of their children's cultural identities; the mother refused to revisit the mines and coal camps of her youth.
 
Reading "Appalachian Odyssey" and the media of the time suggests a rough transition. The representation of Appalachia, and the South more generally, in popular media, tended to sketch a freakish "other." In a 1935 Harper's Magazine article, "The Hillbillies Invade Chicago," writer Albert Votaw describes Appalachian migrants as "clannish, proud, disorderly, untamed to urban ways," confounding "all notions of racial, religious and cultural purity."

West Virginia University College of Pharmacy Guests at Parke-Davis Home Laboratories in Detroit (1959)
 
 
The same year, an article in The Nation, "The Hill-Billies Come to Detroit," refers to the population as "white trash or a little better." These "hill-billies," writes Louis Adamic, "with their extremely low standard of living and lack of acquaintance with modern plumbing, are looked down upon by all but the most intelligent local workers, both native and foreign born; they are despised also—indeed, mainly—because they take employment away from the old-time automotive workers."
 
A 1934 Detroit News editorial proclaimed "Detroit Welcomes All," but when a Wayne State survey just after World War II asked "What people in Detroit are undesirable?", respondents ranked "poor Southern whites; hillbillies, etc." second, just below criminals. ("Negroes" were fourth.)
 
Perhaps most shocking is how even professionals in Appalachia itself contributed to the idea that theirs was a lifestyle out of sync with the times. The Council of the Southern Mountains, for example, sponsored speakers to address a group of city professionals "about the 'strangers' entering their communities," and mountain people's "peculiar ways" were explained in workshops in Cincinnati and Chicago.
 
According to the literature, Appalachians were never welcomed in their new Northern homes. So I expected to hear stories of persecution and slow acceptance from old-timers.
 
But the reality of Appalachians entering Detroit, as reality tends to be, is more complicated.
 
A supportive community
 
Nancy McNiven-Glenn, the former proprietor of North Corktown's Nancy Whiskey bar, and Carole Baker, a lifelong Detroiter who still resides in the Woodbridge neighborhood where she was born, recall a happy time with their Southern neighbors. In Baker's colorful living room, the two friends describe—often while finishing each other's thoughts—a convivial, supportive community.
 
"If you talk to most any Detroiter, their grandma and grandpa came from down south during that time," McNiven-Glenn says. "There's a lot of Kentucky ties here. Tennessee, too."

Nancy McNiven-Glenn
 
 
Her father, a North Carolina native, moved the family north to work in the war factories. In the 1950s and '60s, Baker recalls, many Appalachians and Southerners lived in large apartment buildings on Charlotte and Peterboro streets. They were religious and clannish, according to both women, often living in the same large apartment buildings.
 
Says Baker, "They'd bring cornbread up to the second floor and mama watched the—"  
 
"—young 'uns," McNiven-Glenn says.
 
"—on the first floor while that one went to work, and that's just the way it was."
 
McNiven-Glenn laughs remembering the camaraderie she shared with a Kentucky-born bar owner in the neighborhood. "He had some rough customers. There'd be a few thrown downs in there once or twice a week," she says.
 
One day, he called her up. "He said, 'Nancy!'"—she mimicked a high-pitched Southern twang—"'I'm about starvin' myself and I can't go off and leave this bar. What'd you cook for lunch?' I said, 'I'll be right there with it.'"
 
"That's the way it was," she adds. "They were right there for you."
 
After opening Nancy Whiskey in 1987, McNiven-Glenn had Southern customers who liked to fill the bar with Hank Williams, Sr. songs (and, occasionally, spend their social security checks on rounds).
 
Baker was especially fond of their beans and cornbread, the unofficial dish of Appalachia. "Cornbread dressing was my favorite," she says. "Anyone who was Southern, I'd ask them, 'Please make me cornbread dressing.'"

Carole Baker
 
 
"They were hard workers, unlike what people say," Baker says. "They would always—plumbing problem, or take the plumbing out—"
 
"—Oh, in a minute. They'd give you a hand there, sure," McNiven-Glenn adds.
 
"—redo the floors, finish the woodwork. I always used Southern people because I could trust 'em."
 
Baker also mentions the beautiful conditions of their apartments. I remark that this countered some accounts of their living situations. "No, I can remember them, they were absolutely gorgeous apartments," she says. "The front lawns and everything. [The Southerners] worked at the auto plants and they filled the schools up."
 
Baker says the area deteriorated after the 1967 riots, in part because of fear narratives similar to those endured by Irish immigrants and the blockbusting endured by African-Americans.
 
Over time, many of the Appalachians who stayed moved out to middle-class suburbs like Warren, Taylor, and Hazel Park (which still carry derogatory labels like "Taylortucky"). Some of the poorest Southern whites—many from West Virginia, Tennessee and, Kentucky—continued to live in North Corktown well into the late 20th century.
 
From 1992 to 1994, John Hartigan, Jr. lived in Briggs (as it was then known) and studied its racial dynamics for his book, "Racial Situations." In it, he refers to the Briggs of the '90s as "an extreme poverty zone"; he chose it because of its concentration of poor whites, who were experiencing what he called one of numerous varied "white experiences" in Detroit.
 
When we speak, Hartigan says that the experience of poor Appalachian whites who remained in Briggs wasn't representative of the larger Appalachian migration. Those who got jobs moved to the suburbs in the 1970s and '80s, he says, but by this point, factory jobs were long gone. Those left behind, often the children of those early migrants, did odd jobs and often struggled with alcohol and drug abuse.
 
"They didn't have the kind of opportunity the parents had," he said. 

Read more articles by Courtney Balestier.

Courtney Balestier is a James Beard-nominated writer. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker online, the New York Times, Oxford American and others.  
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