I’ve only been in Williamson, West Virginia for 48 hours and even though it’s not enough time to have a deep sense of everything that is happening in town, I’ve found a significant contrast between the quiet energy that I feel on the streets and the vitality of the residents who are trying to make improvements to their community.
I have been walking around with my camera capturing signs of a town that has suffered a dramatic decrease in its population–from 10,000 to 3,000 people–and talking with locals, asking them why they chose to stay when the coal industry has slowed down.
Williamson, West Virginia, was once a vibrant mining town with a population of 10,000 people. Since the big coal mines closed, there has been a dramatic decrease in the population. You can feel the absence of those who have left.
Allison Braden, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bangladesh 2013-2014, is a Fulbright U.S. Student Program Alumni participant in the Fulbright Amizade 2016 service-learning activity.
I am, frankly, overwhelmed. In the first day and a half of my experience with Amizade in Appalachia, I’ve been forced to confront a swarm of questions that I don’t have answers to and are perhaps unanswerable, but our asking questions without necessarily arriving at conclusions will give shape to the rest of our week.
Today I saw a barber shop called Cuttin’ Up with Belinda. I loved that. I love Americana, and here, it’s everywhere. There are church steeples, American flags, and main streets. There aren’t very many streetlights. My mind jumps from comparison to comparison: Convenience stores selling a little of everything remind me of Bangladesh. The high school football stadium, an island of bright green in a sea of gravel on top of a mined mountain, made me think of Friday Night Lights on TV. The old pickup trucks and main streets remind me of south Georgia and country songs. Despite how different my own community is from the ones I’m getting to visit here and despite West Virginia’s reputation elsewhere in the country, my associations with small town America are almost universally positive. In fact, I have the tendency to romanticize rural communities.