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As coal jobs left, this Appalachian arts and culture institution gave residents reasons to stay


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now we begin a new series, taking us to all corners of the country to see artists at work.

We start with a look at a group that has been serving rural communities in Eastern Kentucky for nearly half-a-century. Originally dubbed the Appalachian Film Workshop, now just Appalshop, the group has dedicated itself to spotlighting the rich cultural history of Appalachia.

Now it's giving residents, many who have long looked to leave the area, new reasons to stay.

Jeffrey Brown brings us the first of an occasional series, American Creators.

Jeffrey Brown: A cold winter day in the tiny coal town of Hemphill in Letcher County, Kentucky, hard-hit by the closing of nearby mines.

But on this Friday, residents have gathered in the basement of a shuttered-school-turned-community-center for free food, music, and a celebration of a tiny, but empowering catering business run by Gwen Johnson, whose mining family has lived here for generations.

Gwen Johnson: I was raised in a coal mine family, where the pride was in the job, but you didn't really own what you made. But with Hemphill Catering Company, we own what we make. The community will.

Jeffrey Brown: The business was made possible through the support of Appalshop, based in nearby Whitesburg, an arts and culture institution that, from its very beginnings, has made economic development part of its mission.

Ada Smith: We have been so inundated with, this is the way your life is, these are the options, this is what you're going to do if you stay here.

Jeffrey Brown: Ada Smith is a program director at Appalshop, and grew up in Whitesburg.

Ada Smith: We can tell you, day in and day out, how many young artists have been told, if you really want to be an artist, you have got to leave. So, you name it. If you want to be an engineer, you have to leave.

So, you know, on that level, I feel like Appalshop has proven that other things can happen here.


Jeffrey Brown: Appalshop dates back almost 50 years, created with the help of federal funds during the so-called war on poverty of the 1960s. It was a time when Appalachia was thrust into the national spotlight.

Man: Beside these roads, the shacks of tar paper and pine, which are the homes of a million permanently poor.

Jeffrey Brown: Appalshop had two big goals: to foster new skills and jobs and to give local people a way to tell their own stories.

Herb E. Smith, Ada's father, was a founding member of Appalshop. His father, grandfather and brothers all worked in the coal mines.

Herb E. Smith: He began here in 1952, about when I was born, and he worked here until '73.

Jeffrey Brown: But coal jobs were going away, and so were local residents.

Herb E. Smith: I graduated from Whitesburg High School in 1970. There were 170 of us graduated. By the end of the summer, less than 50 of us were here, with no hopes of ever returning.

Generations of people, thousands and millions of people leave mining areas, and the people who remain miss them. Miss them bad.

Jeffrey Brown: Trained at Appalshop and armed with cameras, Smith and others took on a new kind of work.

Herb E. Smith: It was a way to be a part of the solution, and to kind of understand the place that we were a part of. And, of course, we learned all kind of things that we had no clue about. And we kind of fell in love with the place.

Jeffrey Brown: They produced scores of films, documenting in frank detail the region they called home.

Herb E. Smith: One of the ways I like to say it is, we make films about the things we like here, and we make films about the things that are challenging.

Woman: The same system that brought prosperity to some impoverished others. Some filmmakers wanted to show that contrast to help bring about social change. Others mined the images the way the companies had mined the coal.

Herb E. Smith: And then we want to make films that hold out people like Ralph Stanley, people who have drawn from the wealth of the culture of the region and made a living from it.

Jeffrey Brown: And Appalshop expanded well beyond filmmaking.

Its Roadside Theater, captured in this 1991 NewsHour report, continues to present plays about life in the region. Its radio station, WMMT, offers a range of music and news, with the help of some 50 volunteer deejays.

Local musicians offer after-school lessons for kids learning to play bluegrass. Downstairs, Appalshop's film vaults hold virtually every minute of film and video from the last 50 years, and now house historic photography collections.

The filmmaking continues with a new generation; 24-year-old Oakley Fugate grew up in a nearby town with a population of just 20. Without Appalshop, he says, his options were limited.

Oakley Fugate: When it comes to artistic dreams and stuff like mine, they're just kind of like, no, you need to do something serious. Like, they don't -- they don't even consider the possibility of you actually doing it.

Jeffrey Brown: But after a training program, he's produced several documentaries, including a recent film spotlighting a transgender student in Whitesburg.

Student: I'm not scared to the trans anymore. I'm not scared or ashamed of it.

Jeffrey Brown: Most important, says Ada Smith, Appalshop continues its focus on how art and culture can stimulate a local economy.

Ada Smith: If people want to come downtown for things. If there's music, if there's events, if there's things to do, then, all of a sudden, there's more businesses. If people have an opportunity to try some different things, then all of a sudden they are like, whoa, I could start a record store, I could start a tattoo parlor, I could start a bar.

Like, your mind just opens up from an initial nugget of trying something different.

Jeffrey Brown: Appalshop relies on federal funding, including the NEA, foundations, and private philanthropy.

And all that, Smith says, only goes so far.

Ada Smith: I just really believe that there's been a long history of only seeing rural communities and economies as places to take from, and not places to invest in.

Jeffrey Brown: And Appalshop says otherwise, huh?


Ada Smith: yes. We feel like there's a lot of wealth and talent and ideas that need to be given a chance.

Jeffrey Brown: Like those of Gwen Johnson at the community center in Hemphill. Her work is now part of an expanded support network that Appalshop has helped build, with more than a dozen businesses and organizations in the area.

Her site faced closure when funds from coal taxes dried up, but with encouragement and support from Appalshop, including $5,000 in seed money, Johnson was able to start a catering company to help pay the bills.

Gwen Johnson: They're friends who kind of stepped up to the plate and began to think outside the box, and sometimes they think bigger than some of us have ever been allowed to think.

Jeffrey Brown: She now employs local residents, including recovering addicts from the Letcher County Drug Court.

Bradley Johnson: And our applications, when they see our background, it just goes to the very bottom, you know? And Gwen overlooks that and gives us a chance to prove ourselves. And I really appreciate the opportunity.

Jeffrey Brown: And now, with another $15,000 from Appalshop, Johnson plans to build a brick oven and open a bakery to serve healthier breads to the community. She's calling it Black Sheep Bakery.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Letcher County, Kentucky.

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