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Remembering Chicago’s “Hillbilly Problem”

By Niki King

This week’s Whet Moser contemplated race relations and Southern migration to the Windy City in the years up to and following World War II, a time when millions of Appalachians were moving to Chicago and other Midwestern cities to find work.

In doing so, he excerpted heavily from a nearly unbelievable nine-part series The Chicago Tribune ran in March 1957 on Appalachians there, or as the paper put it, “the Hillbilly problem.”

Moser, a transplant from Southwest Virginia and  the child of a former collegiate Appalachian Studies program director, called the series “a masterpiece of noirish, lurid yellow journalism,” which it is.

I’ve read excerpts before, but as a former newspaper reporter myself, the fact that paragraphs like these were ever published, never fails to shock me:

Skid row dives, opium parlors, and assorted other dens of iniquity collectively are as safe as a Sunday school picnic compared with the joints taken over by clans of fightin’, feudin’ southern hillbillies and their shootin’ cousins, who today constitute one of the most dangerous and lawless elements of Chicago’s fast growing migrant population….

The hillbillies’ home and family life, experienced investigators say, is the most depraved of any they have ever encountered, with no understanding of sanitation or health. They get married one day, unmarried the next, and in the confusion of common law marriages many children never know who their parents are–and nobody cares….”

Authorities agree that while other troublesome transients have contributed their share toward the city’s crime and delinquency rate, no other group is so completely devoid of self-pride and responsibility as the southern migrants. Others at least spend part of their wages on clothes and furniture, trying to maintain some semblance of a home….

According to Moser, a slew of letters to the editor followed that offered a different perspective of our people. I called my mom, Derinda Larkin, who lives in our hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., and read these lines aloud to her, to gauge her reaction. She lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood the summer of 1972 with her aunt, uncle and cousins  who had moved there years before from Southwest Virginia. Mom was 18 at the time and needed a job. They got her on where they worked at the Stuart Warner assembly line making dashboards for cars.

“Hmmmph,” she said, reacting to each hateful thought in the way she has of disapproving of things. “… Aunt Mary was not like that. … Nobody was. … I don’t agree with any of that.”

What she does remember is that Uncle James moved there the same reason everyone else did, to find work. Their apartment was shabby and small, with only two bedrooms for a family of five. Mom shared a room with her two girl cousins while their brother, Danny, slept on the couch in the living room. There was street parking, she said, lots of stairs to climb and it was always hot.

If there were many others from the Mountain South around her, she failed to note it. But she was aware that there were other distant family members in Chicago, too, some of whom live there still, while others eventually came back.

“Aunt Mary would have liked to have come back home (to Virginia), but her kids got all ingrained in the lifestyle and didn’t want to come back,” Mom said. “So, she’s buried up there.”

The neighborhood didn’t feel dangerous to Mom; on the contrary, she remembers lots of community festivals and get-togethers.

“It was a really good experience,” she said. “I’d never been to big city like that. I loved it. I got to see all kinds of things,” she said, chattering on about the John Hancock building.

Funny, in some ways, my relatives’ migration experience shaped my first perceptions of urbanity, too. As a little girl, Mamaw would get off the phone with Aunt Mary and tell me about Chicago, with a kind of wonderment, like it was on the face of the moon.

“There, they have buildings clear up to the sky,” she’d say. “And they rent a place big as our living room for what we pay to own this whole house.”

My little heart pitter-pattered fast at the very thought of a skyline. I wouldn’t see one until I was about 12 years old, when I first laid eyes on Dallas, Texas, bursting forth like it does from the sack-brown soil.

I eventually got to meet our cousins when they brought their kids down to visit one summer. I wasn’t sure what to expect. They could be different as martians for all I knew. But they were just like us. They wanted to go to Big Lots and see our ancestral homeplace in Wood, Va.

Uncle James ate plates of country ham even though he had some health ailment that restricted his salt intake. He missed ham so badly he was willing to suffer the consequences. He puffed up, turned red and sweaty as the sodium moved through his system.

Our subdivision in Kingsport was banked on steep hillsides, and I remember Mom’s cousin Danny looking out at our view and remarking there were just so many trees. We took them to a nearby park, and his daughter and I had a conversation that, as it occurs to me now, was as much of a discussion about the merits of passive- versus active-use parks as a couple of 10-year-olds could have.

“Are our parks like yours?,” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “Our parks have lots of people and things to do.”

Uncle James, Aunt Mary and one of their daughters have all passed on. Regretfully, I can’t call them and ask them their take on The Tribune’s series, whether they read it back then, how they and their community reacted to it, or if they experienced discrimination or stereotyping.

Nor can I ask them what the neighborhood was like. I passed through Uptown just this summer to get to the Chicago History Museum. The idea that area, as wholly gentrified as it is, once housed hundreds of poor Southerners is as hard for me to imagine as the  World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Tribune series reminds me actually of the history museum’s diorama of that exposition— both offer small, shadowy, slanted views of history.

It makes me wistful and ever-cognizant that many from that generation, that great migration, are fast-aging. Their stories and the reality of their lives are slipping away. It makes me want to light out fast with a tape recorder.

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