Central Appalachia

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  • 50% of the counties in Central Appalachia have only one hospital and about 1 in 5 do not have a hospital at all
  • On average, 20% of the people in the region live below the poverty line (the current national poverty rate for a family of four is $20,650 a year, i.e. $1,720 a month)
  • The first shipment of coal out of Central Appalachia was in 1892 from Dickenson County, in Southwest Virginia; today one coal company owns approximately 40% of the land and between 60%-80% of all of the mineral rights in the county
  • 80% of all Central Appalachian counties are rural, and over half of the region’s population lives in these rural counties
  • Extraction abuses by the coal industry, especially through mountain top removal, has destroyed more than 1,000,000 acres of forests, 500 mountains, and buried over 1,000 miles of streams in the Appalachian region
  • Kentucky ranks 50th in the Nation for the number of adults who cannot read
  • In Eastern Kentucky, where 60% of counties are consistently poor, the A.T. Massey company operated coal mines through 18 subsidiaries, and reported an operating profit in 2000 of $147 million with revenues of $1.1 billion
  • Remote parts of Southwest Virginia are now sites of many prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge – both super maximum security prisons; inmates are shipped here from across the nation and from as far away as Hawaii and urban cities in the Northeast
  • In Hancock County, Tennessee the average income for a family of 4 is $14,000 a year, which is 47% of the national figure
  • 1/3 of all of West Virginia’s children are born into poverty
  • In Logan County, West Virginia 40% of residents do not have safe drinking water
  • Appalachian culture and people are consistently misrepresented in media with programming such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Lil Abner & Daisy Mae, “Appalachian Emergency Room” and Deliverance
  • Is your electricity connected to Mountain Top Removal? Click here to find out

Context for ACF’s Work in Central Appalachia

Central Appalachia is a place of great contradictions. The beauty of the oldest mountain range in North America with lush mountains, old growth forests, small towns and isolated mountain communities is juxtaposed with long-term poverty, out-migration, lack of health care, inadequate educational systems, and political corruption.

The coal, timber, oil, gas, and water contained within the Appalachian mountains are resources that have historically influenced the social economic and political characteristics of the region. Companies have profited greatly from the natural resources at the expense of exploiting our people and destroying the environment leaving generations in decades-long, structural poverty. It is a cruel irony that a region so rich in natural resources is home to many of the poorest people in the United States.

In spite of these burdens, Appalachians have a diverse culture and rich traditions of resiliency and community along with a strong sense of place that have helped them persevere through exceedingly difficult times. Although many are touched by deep poverty and tragedy, Appalachia and its people have a generous spirit, strong determination, and great love for and pride in the unparalleled natural beauty of this region.

Originally home to indigenous peoples such as the Cherokee and Creek Nations, the rich coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and West Virginia are now home to 6 million people, over half of whom live in rural areas, with some counties having less than 25,000 residents.
The coal and other resources generate revenues into the billions of dollars, but these huge profits go to companies in other states and counties not in Central Appalachian. Appalachian counties are left with little or no tax base to help fund schools, health care, or job creation.

Entrenched, corrupt local governments and lagging public policy have not generated sustainable economic alternatives in our region. Low-wealth individuals, women and people of color are often discouraged or excluded from civic activism. New job creation tends to be in the form of low-wage jobs, and at the same time, globalization has moved thousands of jobs from the region. Low-income communities have difficulty attracting new business. Geographic isolation and the lack of role models, entrepreneurial skills and access to start-up funds often frustrate individuals, communities and grass-roots groups poised to work to make significant positive change.

Many people growing up in West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia, grow up knowing we may have to leave in order to realize our dreams, but because of our strong roots to the place we call home we remain. In spite of the lack of opportunities and economic growth, many people choose to stay because it is home, because we’re rooted, because of family, or because our education and training haven’t equipped us with the skills or the hope of a better future if we relocate. Even though there may not be any jobs in our community, even though our mountains are being blown away for coal and dug away for vacation condos, even though our water is polluted with acid run-off, and even though poverty levels in some areas are over 20% and unemployment at 45% and even though services and financial resources which are inadequate continue to dwindle and disappear, we still find strength in the beauty and embrace of the mountains, in the joy of the music and stories. We have pride in the people who settled this land including that the Underground Railroad made stops throughout the mountains leaving historically strong African-Americans communities; the Italians and Hungarians who came to work in the coal mines; the Scotch, Irish, and Eastern European farmers and workers; and our newest residents from other counties including Spanish-speaking residents.

We hope you will join us in celebrating the beauty and rich social fabric of Central Appalachia, and actively support Central Appalachian organizations working to address systemic problems of poverty, racism, and social inequity in their own communities and neighborhoods. Please consider making a gift to ACF today.


  • Sequoyah, of the Cherokee Nation, is the only known person in the world to single-handedly develop an alphabet; his work became the first written language for Native American people
  • Bristol, Tennessee is the “Birthplace of Country Music” which started with recordings made in the 1920s by the Carter Family (of Hiltons, Virginia), Jimmy Rogers, Ralph Perr-Victor and the Stonemans; Bristol is legally two cities – one in TN and one in VA – they share the same name and same main street, but have separate governments
  • The first free rural mail delivery started in Charles Town, West Virginia on October 6, 1896
  • The Great Smoky Mountain National Park in East Tennessee is the most visited national park in the United States
  • The song “We Shall Overcome” was adapted by Guy Carawan and Zilphia Horton when they worked at the Highlander Center in East Tennessee from an African spiritual song preserved by the Gullah community in coastal South Carolina
  • Kentucky has more miles of running water than any other state in the US other than Alaska
  • The first observance of “Mother’s Day” was in Grafton, West Virginia in 1908
  • At the Battle of Blair Mountain West Virginia in 1921, between 10,000 and 15,000 coal miners confronted state and federal troops in an effort to unionize the Southwestern West Virginia mine counties; this was the largest organized armed uprising in American labor history and led almost directly to the labor laws currently in effect in the US


Many famous scientists, authors, poets, musicians, actors and actresses, inventors, entrepreneurs, athletes, scholars, justice workers, and heroes were born in and are otherwise from Central Appalachia including:

  • Noah Adams, reporter, West Virginia
  • James Agee, poet and author, born in East Tennessee
  • Marilou Awiakta, poet and author, raised in East Tennessee
  • Bill Bass, forensic scientist, East Tennessee
  • June Carter and the Carter Family, singers and songwriters, Southwest Virginia
  • Jennifer Garner, actress, raised in West Virginia
  • Henry Louis Gates, scholar, raised in West Virginia
  • Nikki Giovanni, poet, East Tennessee
  • Alex Haley, novelist and autobiographer, most known for ROOTS, last home was in East Tennessee
  • John Henry, railroad worker after whom the American folk ballad John Henry was written, West Virginia
  • Napoleon Hill, author, born in Southwest Virginia
  • Ashley Judd, actress, Eastern Kentucky
  • Naomi Judd, singer, Eastern Kentucky
  • Wynonna Judd, singer, Eastern Kentucky
  • Don Knotts, actor, born in West Virginia
  • Loretta Lynn, singer and songwriter, Eastern Kentucky
  • Kathy Mattea, singer, born in West Virginia
  • Dolly Parton, singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, East Tennessee
  • Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Eastern Kentucky
  • Mary Lou Retton, Olympic Gold Medal gymnast, raised in West Virginia
  • Walter Reuther, one of the most influential labor leaders in the 20th century, born in West Virginia
  • Booker T. Washington, author, Southwest Virginia
  • Reggie White, pro-football player and minister, East Tennessee