Boom and Bust, Recession and Renewal; When Factories and Mines Close, Lives Change

Aug 2, 2019

Our region has faced major economic changes and challenges in the past decade. But if you know our region’s history, this story of boom and bust, renewal and recession, is an all too familiar story. In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll explore how these economic changes affect people, our friends, our neighbors, and how entire communities can be uprooted by the closing of a local factory, or coal-mine layoffs. 


What Happened to Weirton?

The people of Weirton, West Virginia, have experienced the impact of economic change first hand, largely as a result of deindustrialization, a phenomenon where economies advance and transition into a post-industrial environment. This evolution leads to complications on political, social and economic scales, as cities struggle to find a path to the future that can guarantee the job security and community identity once offered by industry. 

The city, once home to Weirton Steel Corporation, a powerhouse steelmaker that was once the largest employer in West Virginia, fell victim to the fall of the United States’ steel industry, and now is a shadow of its former self.

We'll explore Weirton's story, as told by a young woman who grew up there. Ella Jennings produced a five-part, personal narrative podcast titled “What Happened to Weirton?” as a part of her Master of Science in Journalism at West Virginia University. The podcast showcases the struggles of Weirton in its post-industrial state. The episodes feature both voices of those who have worked in the mill as well as townspeople who were affected by the decline of the city to examine the history of the city and the social costs of deindustrialization. What was found were stories of suicide, population loss, economic hardships, as well as hopes for the future.

And host Jessica Lilly talked with Jennings about why she wanted to focus on her community’s story of change, and why it led to her decision to stay in West Virginia, at least for the time being.

Telling her story about her husband, former steel worker Larry Tice, Mary Tice stands in her kitchen in New Cumberland, West Virginia
Credit Ella Jennings

Race and Roots: Economic Transition and Change in Lynch, Kentucky

We'll also learn more about a part of history that’s been largely ignored by the national media. In the early 1900s, a group of African Americans settled in eastern Kentucky to work in the coal mines. But their lives, like so many others, have been uprooted by economic, and cultural forces. 

To explore this history we'll listen back to one of our stories from The Struggle to Stay

Derek Akal’s family is part of what’s known as the Black Diaspora of Eastern Kentucky — a largely overlooked part of Appalachia’s story. Back in the early 1900s, the coalfields of our region were once multicultural hubs, filled with immigrants from other countries, like Italy and Greece. And many African Americans from the deep South also came to work in the mines and, later, the steel mills. 

Derek Akal
Credit Benny Becker

Akal’s cousin, Karida Brown, recently published a book about the black diaspora of Eastern Kentucky. It’s called “Gone Home: Race & Roots Through Appalachia”. 

You can hear the full Struggle to Stay series here.

New Book Explores West Virginia’s African American History

We'll also hear an interview with Cicero Fain, the author of “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story.” The book explores some of the lesser-known stories from the Mountain State’s African American history. For example, he learned about an informal system of communication, something Fain calls “the grapevine telegraph”, which allowed blacks, both freed and slaves, to work together, and communicate with each other as they traveled throughout West Virginia. Many of them were on their way to Ohio, where they could find freedom, if they were slaves, as well as jobs and better opportunities up north.

We had help producing this week's episode of Inside Appalachia from WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and Ella Jennings with West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. 

Music in today’s show was provided by Matt Jackfert, Dinosaur Burps, the Mt. Sinai Spirituals, Lee Rosevere, Kevin MacLeod, Kai Engel, and Spencer Elliot. Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. He also edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to insideappalachia@wvpublic.org.

“This has been a story of African American struggle and striving that we can trace through American history, because we’re always getting kicked out of or move from where we settle down,” said Karida Brown, who has been working for several years to document the oral histories of eastern Kentucky, and recently published a book, called “Gone Home: Race & Roots Through Appalachia”.