Norma Lee Browning vs. the hillbillies



Harold Henderson mentions, in his history of Uptown, that the neighborhood was was once famously Appalachian. What's less often mentioned is that, for a totally insane period in the late 50s, southern migrants were considered the greatest threat to the city since communists or reform. (I migrated from southwestern Virginia several years ago, and I'm the child of a former collegiate Appalachian Studies program director, so the subject is near to my heart.)

The headline pictured was the first in a nine-part series (followed by another series filed from "Otter Holler, Appalachia, USA") by Tribune reporter Norma Lee Browning in March of 1957 on Appalachians in Chicago. I can't just repost the entire first article in the series, a masterpiece of noirish, lurid yellow journalism, but it's worth quoting at length:

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....

Nor was it just the Tribune; a 1958 Harper's article, "Hillbillies Invade Chicago," calls the city's southern migrants "proud, poor, primitive, and fast with a knife," "the American dream gone berzerk," "clannish, proud, disorderly, untamed to urban ways," and "anti-social to the point of delinquency in the eyes of their neighbors."

It warmed my heart, reading through the Tribune series, to see the quick-tempered, primitive Appalachians who preceded me here get their dander up and take to the... letters page.

If Norma Lee Browning takes a drive thru Lincoln park [sic] some day, she will see the statue of another "hillbilly."

If Miss Browning can get out of the taverns, brothels, and opium parlors (with which she implies an extensive acquaintance) long enough to look in the right places....

Tell your Miss Browning to cheer up. The youths in blue jeans and leather jackets she saw in various places of amusement she visited were probably not the remains of the Confederate army, come to drag her off to Andersonville, as she seems to think. That is almost the universal garb of teen-agers all over the country today--at least in the north and west.

I suspect these letters, written in response to the first article in the series (March 3), were not the half of it. Subsequent articles in the series were entitled:

"Charges Prove Upsetting to Feudin' Brand of Hillbillies" (March 10)

"Better Smile if You Tag This Couple as Hillbillies" (March 11)

"Virginia Couple Finds Chicago a Cold and Lonesome Place" (March 12, a profile of a family from my hometown of Roanoke)

"Southern Bred Rise to Defense of Those Described as 'Hillbillies'" (March 13)

"A Lot of Solid Citizens from South Resent 'Hillbilly' Tag" (March 14)

"Northern Wife Resents Southern Mate Being Called Hillbilly: Calls Him Honest and Diligent" (March 15)

and finally and most hilariously:

"Is 'Hillbilly' Fighting Word or a Kind One?" (March 16)


Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment