PEOPLE I KNOW ALWAYS SEEM SURPRISED THAT I LOVEWEST VIRGINIA. I WAS BORN there in 1950, in Piedmont, a town with a population of 2,565 that was nestled against a wall of mountains on the banks of the Potomac River. It was beautiful, and still is, although time, the economy, and migration away from it by people like me have left it quaintly crumbling at best, starkly desolate at worst.
But I still love it. West Virginia nurtured me: this self-contained place taught me “how to be” in the wider world which I would go on to experience in my adult life. My friends’ surprise comes, I think, from the fact that Piedmont is Appalachia and part of Appalachia is in the Deep South, and the Deep South of the 1950s has come to be known as not a very good place to be if you happened to be black (colored is what we called it then).
It’s true: whites and blacks were slow to change in West Virginia, slow to move away from the comfortable, closed world we knew to the bigger world promised by integration. But we did change, and West Virginia changed, and the great stretch of the Appalachian land itself took on the character of this change. You can see it everywhere, in the stubborn mills that still stand in spite of decades of idleness, and in the vital commercial centers, college towns, and shiny new homes that have come to sustain a new generation.
The Encyclopedia of Appalachia lays out for everyone else what we who grew up there have always known. Appalachia is a rich and beautiful land steeped in tradition and open to change. It is home to countless storytellers and stories without end. Both its lushness and its rockiness teach us to make our way in the world, but Appalachia never leaves us.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.,
W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and
Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies,