published Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Real Appalachia: Area projects seek a new perception

Johnson City Press
Haying on the Loyd Sizemore farm in Hancock County, Tenn.
Haying on the Loyd Sizemore farm in Hancock County, Tenn.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Photographs were taken in the 1920s and 1930s by the Rev. Chester Leonard. They depict scenes from the Vardy community in Hancock County, Tenn. Above is a Vardy School classroom.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Elizabeth Saulsbury

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Appalachia has frequently been the target of negative media attention.

In news, television, movies and popular culture, Appalachia is often depicted as drug-addicted, dirty, uneducated and impoverished. But the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services and The Appalachian Project are on a mission to change that.

The Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University celebrates the true cultural heritage of Appalachia by documenting and showcasing Appalachia's past. This year marks the center's 30th anniversary.

"The truth about any region can never be fully known because diverse perspectives see different 'truths,'" said Roberta Herrin, center director. "Research is the key -- research in all its forms. As part of an institution of higher education, the center is committed to research that captures these diverse perspectives, thereby helping to see a whole region, which is far more meaningful and interesting than the flat media representations that are so common."

The center includes the Reece Museum and the Archives of Appalachia. It also publishes Now & Then, a magazine committed to the honest representation of all aspects of the Appalachian region.

"In the last 10 years, the center focused on curriculum and created the world's only academic department devoted to the Appalachian region," Herrin said. "This unique Department of Appalachian Studies houses the only B.A. in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies and a Master of Arts in Appalachian Studies, one of two nationally."

The Reece Museum exhibits the true nature of Appalachia's past for ETSU and the community. It also displays the contemporary art and culture of the area. Herrin said the museum undermines negative stereotypes about Appalachia "by preserving material culture and interpreting or exhibiting it in new and evocative ways that help us see the region's future."

The Archives of Appalachia collects, preserves and shares the written words, sounds and images of the people of Appalachia. By preserving the documents and materials of a long-ago Appalachia, the archives serve both the ETSU community and the region in providing the facts and stories of the past.

"A lot of times, people come in and want to know specific things about the people's history and the region's history," said Laura Smith, education and outreach activist for the Archives of Appalachia. "We can let people delve into that by providing preserved documentation and materials from that history."

Smith said that in its role as a research facility, it serves a vital role in the community.

"That's why we're important," said Smith. "We show the region things that were created by Appalachia, not just for Appalachia."

Herrin said the center also hosts one of Tennessee's Governor's Schools, a residential program for high school students that explores the region through history, paleontology, museum studies and archival studies.

"What better way is there to combat negative representations of the region than to engage high school and college students in meaningful dialogue about Appalachia?" Herrin asked.

Awareness about the importance of uncovering the true stories of Appalachia is spreading throughout the region as organizations, projects, films and documentaries on the subject are being created by locals. As the center celebrates 30 years, Herrin is hopeful it has many more years of educating the public in store.

"Because there are many 'truths' about Appalachia's identity and history, the best we can do is provide a lens through which all the different perspectives can be seen and examined," Herrin said.

Johnson City resident Shane Simmons is on a similar mission. He and his partner, Jason Barton, are creating a documentary that will showcase the culture and heritage of Appalachia.

Simmons and Barton are making the film as part of The Appalachian Project, which will feature the stories and memories of a long-ago Appalachia.

"Certainly the documentary is where a lot of our focus and attention is right now, but we developed The Appalachian Project as something more than just a documentary," Simmons said. "Our mission for The Appalachian Project is to present the culture, traditions and most importantly, the people of our part of the world in a positive, accurate way that isn't always reflected by media and television coverage that tends to often spotlight sensationalized stereotypes for entertainment purposes."

In order to accomplish this, the filmmakers are not only searching for stories from the region's senior citizens, but also from groups of people who are considered minorities in Appalachia.

"We are also looking for stories from African-Americans, Native Americans and other minorities in Appalachia who don't fit the stereotype of the poor white moonshiner that often comes to mind when discussing the area, but who are very much a large part of our communities and history," Simmons said.

Simmons said that he and Barton hope not only to help the public to understand the truth about Appalachia, but also to spur local residents to a greater appreciation of the area.

"The real tragedy to me is that it seems some people in our area buy into the negative images and don't appreciate our heritage like they should," said Simmons. "We are striving to change that by promoting a sense of Appalachian pride as we have a history and uniqueness to which no other region in the country can compare. Our goal is not just to show a more complete picture for people away from the area, but also to create a sense of identity and unity for those of us still residing here."

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