Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down


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The Up in Flames Issue

Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down

Stories that offer a complex and nuanced understanding of what central Appalachia looks like 50 years after becoming a byword for poverty.

In his historic 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, wanting to find ways to significantly change the lives of those the American dream had left behind. LBJ believed that America had the resources to wipe out economic scarcity, and he used military rhetoric to rally the people around the cause. Central Appalachia became the frontier for the initiative because politicians were concerned they would have a difficult time maintaining widespread public support if the face of poverty had dark skin.


News organizations from across the country descended on the region, which runs along the Appalachian Mountains through West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Journalist Charles Kuralt and many others depicted it as an unseemly place to live. Those responsible for these misrepresentations had the best of intentions, but they contributed to unfair stereotypes of a rural group of people who already felt ostracized from the "Great Society." Decades later, most of the social programs put in place there have been severely hindered by reductions in aid.

I have been making photographs in central Appalachia for five years. I spent the past summer collaborating with local writers to tell stories that offer a complex and nuanced understanding of what central Appalachia looks like 50 years after becoming a byword for poverty.

The stories, as diverse as they were, inevitably took on themes: the effects of the declining coal industry in Boone County, West Virginia; systemic problems with health care across the region; locals' decades-long struggle against the obliteration of their mountains due to strip mining; the drug epidemic in West Virginia; and the unfortunate stereotyping of so-called redneck and hillbilly culture.

Early on, I had to accept that the stories could never offer an authoritative view of the region. Central Appalachia is too vast and complicated for this. Instead the series, done in partnership with writers who call the region home, slows down the process of journalism and localizes it. We doubled and tripled the days of reporting most mass media outlets usually allow. Together we set out on a path that would move beyond the media's one-dimensional outsider perspective to immerse the reader in a complicated set of circumstances and viewpoints.


The series will not correct the easy, overly simple story the press developed in 1964 or reverse the decades of class discrimination that have followed. The pieces, varied and ambiguous, aren't propaganda illustrating how great or awful things are. There is no perfect way to gather up the voices of the other, and culture is not something that can be gotten exactly right. But there is value in thinking through what happens when we attempt to change people's circumstances through social engineering. Sometimes these people profit, sometimes they suffer, and sometimes they are empowered to make things better on their own, away from the policies of a government that has seemingly discarded them.

Kirk is drinking at Buddy's, the only bar left in Madison, West Virginia, at the time (since closed). Much of the region has struggled with a declining coal economy. Miners have been laid off in record numbers, and local businesses have closed their doors.

Kendra and Jailah after attending Boone County, West Virginia's annual Coal Festival in Madison. They are wearing matching T-shirts professing their love for each other. The celebrations had lower turnout than in past years, given mass layoffs in the coal industry.

Bryan Dunlap, 39, surveyor for Patriot Coal. He's worked for six companies, three of which have declared bankruptcy.

Dakota Workman is a personal trainer at Southern Fitness in Madison. He is also a youth leader in his local church and volunteers at the Madison Public Library. He believes in the future of the region and sees himself as having an important role in building a community in Madison.

Downtown Logan, West Virginia, is a picturesque town with historic redbrick buildings nestled between hills and a river. A large percentage of the population lives in poverty or is on government assistance or both. Drug use is rampant.

Shawn, the child of a drug-addicted prostitute, grew up in the projects in Charleston, West Virginia, and started selling drugs at 14. He was recently released from prison after serving almost ten years for drug-related charges. He hopes to use his experience to help underprivileged youths.

The Mountaineer Power Plant near New Haven, West Virginia, converts the region's coal into electricity. These plants are slowly becoming obsolete as we seek cleaner energy alternatives.

Linda and neighbor Alan in downtown Logan. Linda can barely afford the rent for her sparsely furnished apartment, where her two daughters sleep on the floor. Alan is on disability due to a coal-mining injury, entitling him to $600 [€550] a month and a prescription for the painkiller Norco.

Jeff Barker receives an X-Ray from the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps in Wise, Virginia. RAM, staffed by 1,200 volunteers, has made central Appalachia a focus of its mission to provide free health care to rural populations.

Exam rooms at RAM's annual pop-up clinic in Wise are repurposed animal stalls at the town fairgrounds. Over the course of three days in July, RAM performs 7,035 dental procedures and gives out 840 pairs of glasses.

Patients camp overnight at the Wise fairgrounds to ensure they will be in line at 06,00 to receive free medical treatment. Virginia is one of 19 states that haven't adopted Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Dental care is by far the biggest demand at the RAM clinic. Patients wait for hours in outdoor tents to have their teeth treated. Volunteers work quickly to sanitize equipment and dental workstations as patients get X-rays and have their teeth cleaned or extracted.

Hershel lives on Stratton Street in downtown Logan. Retired, he spends his days running a yard sale form his porch. Like most people living on Stratton, Hershel says he feels unsafe. He warned us not to stay on the street after dark because of prostitution, robberies, and violence.

Joe Ford was the first black police chief and mayor in Iaeger, West Virginia, population 300 and 98 percent white. Joe's father, a coal miner, never wanted his kids to work in the mines. Joe went into law enforcement while most of his 12 siblings left for Detroit to work in the car industry.

Cassandra Stacy, from Meigs County, Ohio, describes herself as a "hill punk." She lives in a Devils Diciples biker club and describes her neighbors as antiauthority, antigovernment people who want to be left alone and not controlled by others. She feels at home in this community.

Josephine Kirby, from West Columbia, West Virginia, is 96. She runs a convenience store that has been in her family for 75 years. Inside the store are photographs of people who grew up in the community. Outside, men stand around for hours smoking cigarettes and swapping stories.

Highway 23 as it crosses Benge's Gap, Virginia, the site of an historic battle between colonists and Native Americans. White settlers took this land as their own in the late 1700s, when many colonists first crossed the Appalachian Mountains.

Mountain Justice is a collective of organizers fighting coal and other extractive industries. At the organization's summit this year—held in the Kanawha State Forest near Charleston, West Virginia—participants learn how to test a stream's water quality.

Reflective overalls can be found for sale on roadsides throughout the coalfields.

Max Taylor, from the Carolina Friends School, participates in the Mountain Justice summit. During a workshop, he learns how to ascend trees for tree sits and banner drops. These are key elements of direct-action campaigns.

This series is a continuation of Stacy Kranitz's study of Appalachia, originally appearing in July 2015 as part of our annual Photo Issue. Follow the entire series on