the untold stories of kentuckians brought by force to ypsilanti

For all that I’ve told you about myself here on the site over the past six years, I don’t believe that I’ve ever mentioned my passion for hands-on American history research. There was a time in my life when I thought that perhaps it might, in some way, shape or form, be my career. As I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out for me, I don’t complain a lot about the choices I’ve made in life. I do, however, have two significant regrets. One was not staying to work with my boss, friend and mentor, the renowned historic archeologist Ed Rutsch, on the excavation of the site in New York City that would turn out to be the now much written about slave burial ground. The other is that I didn’t take the opportunity to work for the Smithsonian when I had the chance. I was offered a position in the mid 90’s, and, as it didn’t pay enough to cover my bills at the time, I turned it down. In retrospect, I probably did the right thing, as the decisions I made led be back to Ypsi, where I now have a great life with Linette, Clementine and our little band of like-minded trouble-makers, but I occasionally long to be traveling the countryside like Alan Lomax, collecting the untold stories of the Americans whose lives aren’t chonicled in the corporate media.

To put it in a nutshell, I guess you could say I enjoy unraveling mysteries from the past by talking to people, going through archives and digging in the dirt. That’s what really excites me.

I mention all of this in the way of background, as I think it helps set the stage for for this post… Anyway, the other day we had a discussion here on the site that really caught my interest. It was something that Steve Pierce said in a thread about the use of “Ypsitucky” as a perjorative. As a son of Kentucky, born not too far from my great grandparents’ tobacco farm, I took particular interest. After suggesting that Ypsitucky rose to the level of the “N” word in the lexicon of hate speech, Steve inferred that Kentuckians were brought to this region against their will during World War II. Here’s his exact quote:

…You need to learn some of the history before you weigh in here. The Kentuckians and other Southerners that were brought up during the war were many times under despicable circumstances. Abuse, rape, kidnapping, thefts, extortion, and much more was all too prevalent. When they got here they got the worst jobs, often having to pay kick backs to employers, bosses, or flop house owners…

As other people in the comments section of this blog picked up on it, I don’t believe I was alone in thinking that Steve was suggesting that people were brought to our area from Kentucky against their will. I asked Steve to elaborate on this, as I was very much interested. While, like everyone else, I knew that the mass migration from the south to the factories of the north was ofter unpleasant, I had never heard anything about kidnapping or forced migration. My understanding of the situation was much the same as our friend, EMU History professor Mark Higbee, who left the following comment in response to Steve:

…As an historian, I am curious to know what Steve bases these claims on — I certainly agree that there was (and is!) brutal exploitation of labor in many industrial areas. But were Appalachians more particularly likely to be victimized by “Abuse, rape, kidnaping, thefts, extortion…” than other groups of migrant or immigrant labor? Not that I know of. The Appalachian migrants — and that is what Ypsitucky refers to, rather than to all southerners or just to people from Kentucky — were among the last groups to enter Michigan’s industrial labor force in large numbers, and they did so at the bomber plant, rather famously. Yet the fact is that they came to Michigan as voluntary migrants, and they earned more here by far than they could back home….Life was better in Michigan: People from Kentucky weren’t kidnapped as a means of recruiting them to indusrial labor in Michigan factories, although Steve’s comment seems almost to imply as much. In point of historical fact, of course, people from Appalachia were smart folks and millions of them moved to industrial areas of the Midwest for the same reasons millions of people from around the world did in the 20th century: The move improved the quality of their lives. And they brought their culture with them. But in the area just east of Ypsilanti, the Appalachians were one of the largest, if not the largest, identifiable social group, and they populated an area that had just recently been farmland: So they did make up a notable social group.

This isn’t too say that Kentuckians weren’t derided or exploited They were. All groups of poor workers are derided and exploited, and that is deplorable. But none of the put down terms for Appalachians even enter the same galaxy of hatefulness as the N-word. The N-word originated as a means of dehumanizing a people who were violently kidnapped, removed from their homelands against their will, and brought to a foreign land to labor as slaves. That experience is hardly similar to that of voluntary migrants who moved to improve their quality of life…

And hey Steve — if you could clarify what you were referring to, I’d appreciate it. I think we’re in agreement on the need to honor all people’s heritage. But what’s distinctive about Michigan’s Appalachian heritage has, to my knowledge, little to do with kidnapping. People from all over the world came to Michigan because they thought life here would be better than back home; and those choices were smart.

I joined Mark in asking Steve for more details, and he responded, saying that he’d heard the abduction stories firsthand. Here’s a clip from his response, in which he explains why the individuals that he’s spoken with haven’t told others of their ordeals:

Mark, absolutely, but you can see how I was attacked when I brought up these issue, you can understand why folks are reluctant to talk about these things.

Human slavery and trafficking still occurs today. Today it is Asian and Eastern European women that are forced into the sex trade. Many of these women are brought to this country. Fifty and 100 years ago it was immigrants, legal and illegal, and the rural poor.

We seemingly can’t have a discussion about race and abuse of the poor and disadvantaged without attacking each other.

For many, it is too painful to talk about and you end up being vilified because the stories run counter to the popular perception of Rosie the Riveter and the war propaganda that was promoting the idea of unity and harmony that was far from the reality of the time….

So, against my better judgement, I’ve decided to take on yet one more project. I’ve asked Steve to point me toward those individuals with stories of being brought against their will to Michigan during World War II, and, assuming they’re willing, I’d like to interview them either on tape or on video. If their stories check out, I think this could be a hugely important historic finding. Sure, it’s not like working for the Smithsonian, but it’s the best chance I’ve seen in the past 10 years to contribute to the effort to really understand our American story… So, if you are privy to information, like that which Steve has referred to, please let me know. The batteries for my tape recorder are charging.

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  1. not one of the "cool kids"
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    This is your blog Mark, you can post whatever you want to…that said, this post about Mr. Pierce’s comments is immature. Every time Mr. Pierce comments on your site, you and your buddies respond in very immature ways. Are “y’all” at war? Why didn’t you Finish your “research” on his comments and then post this installment? All this new post will do is bring insults to Mr. Pierce. I never met either one of you, but Ypsi is pretty small, can’t anyone come together and get anything done? Obviously not, you would rather bicker back and forth, and cut off unicorn heads. Makes me want to not want to be involved in any Ypsilanti projects with you and the “cool kids”. You all need to grow up.
    And sorry, Ypsi-tuckey is put down. period. Sure, it’s said in jest a lot, but it’s an insult – I know quite a few people that would be mad if I said to them, “All you Ypsituckians need to get a life.” Just stick it in any sentence and say it to someone that lives outside the Historical district and see if they think it is insulting.

  2. dum observer
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I must be missing something. It sounds to me like Mark wants to work with Steve to document these events.

  3. Brackache
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    NOot”CK”: I disagree with mark and OEC on damn near everything policy-wise, and am probably closer to Steve’s political views than theirs. However, if Steve starts crying when people call him on his demagoguery, maybe he should stop acting like a demagogue. I’m certainly more hesitant to support him and his political allies because of it, cause that sort of dishonest attempt at emotional manipulation brings up character questions.

    If Steve wasn’t making up a bunch of crap, then this post is his chance to vindicate himself and make his detractors’ recant their doubts.

    If he was making up a bunch of crap, he’s going to look stupid, so maybe he shouldn’t make up a bunch of crap for fear of looking stupid in the future.

    It might also be possible that mark’s not being snarky.

    I am one of the cool kids though, you’re certainly right about that. I am both holier and smarter than everyone else on this damn blog.

  4. not one of the "rich kids"
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Dear Uncool.

    Not sure if we can judge Mark’s intent, but from my perspective Mr. Pierce has done a lot of harsh name-calling of public officials, all good Ypsilanti citizens, the last few years. Much of what goes beyond civil debate. As he doesn’t seem to be one to shy away from confrontation, I’m sure if he’s offended by comments, or this post, he’ll let readers know.

  5. Brackache
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    “I am one of the cool kids though, you’re certainly right about that. I am both holier and smarter than everyone else on this damn blog.”

    I just want to point out that I am being hyperbolic and ironic for humorous intent, before some humorless demagogue starts accusing me of being an Ypsituckian-hating racist or some pathetic crap.

  6. Sam
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Knowing Steve I think he’ll welcome a chance to work with Mark and tell the stories of these people he’s come to become close with in the community.

  7. Mark H.
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    As a historian, I welcome all kinds of debate about the past, and certainly the Ypsilanti’s area’s complex and too little studied 20th century past merits study & debate. So I take both Mark M’s newest post on this topic, and Steve’s earlier, provocative comments, as constructive: they can possibly yield efforts that will produce more information than is presently known. Certainly the debate in the comments on the other Ypsitucky thread on Mark’s blog produced lots of valuable exchanges….and i bet more folks are now know more about where the Ypsitucky term comes from, and what it references, and how it can be offensive or benign depending on the speaker’s intent.

    I wish I knew more about the WWII era Appalachian migrants in this area. Was it largely young male workers, or entire intact families of migrants? I ought to know, but don’t. My ignorance is vast. I don’t think it’s plausible that Appalachians came to Michigan as forced migrants; I do think it’s plausible that in this area members of the Appalachian community suffered exploitation, possibly including horrific experiences with prostitution, that were seldom noted then and are not widely known now. So Steve may have sources of information that inspired his possilby hyperbolic comments, and I wouldn’t discount it. But if someone now in their 80s has memories of such abuses, they are unlikely to now come forward with them: Oral history is less likely to uncover long retained secrets than to record memories of fairly recent events. If you’d kept it private for all your life that, say, your aunt worked in a brothel serving bomber plant workers and was treated horribly and compelled to stay there, why would you reveal that now? To be exploited or abused – or to be related to people who were, or part of a community that’s suffered such mistreatment – is usually, in American culture, regarded as something shameful, and we tend to keep quiet about what the culture will shame us about.

    To me, there’s much potential for learning from sharp exchanges over possible meanings from the past. I don’t fault anyone for caring enough to be willing to provoke such questions. Mark & Steve, each in their own way, contribute much to this dialog about local history, and I praise them for it.

  8. Robert
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Brackache, you’re an Ypsituckian-hating racist…oh, wait, I see. Never mind.

    Seriously though, I think Mark H sums things up pretty well here.

    I can’t help but like “not one of the cool kids” for calling Mark and his buddies immature though. I don’t care who you are…you gotta love that. However, if someone said to me, “All you Ypsituckians need to get a life,” I’d probably be mad about the “get a life” part of the comment, but not so much the “Ypsituckian” part.

    I think it’s sort of a compliment to suggest cutting off unicorn heads is immature. I always assumed everyone saw it as I do…a sick expression of a deeply disturbed psychopath. No offence, Mark.

  9. Brackache
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    “Hyperbolic” is the mark maynard blog word of the day.

  10. mark
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never been considered one of the “cool kids” before. Thanks, I guess.

    It’s weird that I’m labeled a “cool kid”

  11. Robert
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    So not only is he immature, he’s naive and he’s a nerd.

  12. Reclusion
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Cool Kids Are Overrated

  13. Posted July 3, 2008 at 11:52 pm | Permalink


    I would be glad to sit down and talk with you. Call me and we can set up a time we can get together.

    Steve Pierce

  14. Ol' E Cross
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Not cool kid. Am I one of the cool kids? I only ask, because I realize it would be rather presumptuous for me to assume I am when most actual kids would consider me far from cool.

    Sincerely, as I’m often “at odds” with Steve on issues, if there’s anything I’ve said that you or he finds offensive, let me know, and I’ll do my best to explain. Truly.

    Although I kinda hope I’m cool, if I’m not, please tell me, so I don’t embarrass myself by acting cool when I’m not.

    Before I blather on, I’d like to know what you’re thinking of, so I know if I’m adding anything to the discussion.

  15. egpenet
    Posted July 4, 2008 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Possible scenario … which happens near the Mexican border …

    Guy shows up with a van, stake-bed truck, trailer … says to the guys on the corner, “You wanna job?” / “Jo qiuero trabahar?” … and off they go … for hours … then a day … two days … they’re in Whyoming by then shovelling manure for low wages and having no idea where they are.

    Or they end up in the middleof Kansas for haying … again … no idea where they are. They get paid something, but they have no way to get homeor how to send some money back home.

    Today … we have western union, cell phones, la policia, etc. In the 1930s, once you left your valley in Kentucky, you were lost and didn’t know north, south, east, west. You did what you were told … and you got fed and clothed and were given a place to sleep. The company store gave you credit. But since you didn’t get paid, you ended up in debt to the company (the mine owner, farmer, mill owner, etc.

    On and on … endentured servitude, nowhere to turn … lost child.

    It’s happening to young Eastern block women, Asian women, children … what’s the big secret? We have done this over the ages to countless millons of peoples … and it continues today. Is it in the history books? No. Nor is a lot of reality. Depends on who writes the books, the curriculum, what’s hot, what’s not, how many pages, what’s the “No child Left Behind” criteria … no wonder we graduate with such a half-arsed comprehension of what IS history … and a sense of people in world events.

    Are we simply ignorant? To some extent. Are we blind to the suffering of many. Absolutely, yes.

  16. Mark H.
    Posted July 4, 2008 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    well put, egpenet.

  17. mark
    Posted July 4, 2008 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I think we’re all in agreement that people were mistreated. That there were prostitutes, to me, isn’t the issue. What I think is historically significant is Steve’s revelation about “human trafficking” and during the period… And maybe I have more faith in oral history than you do, Mark, but I think it’s worth pursuing if Steve has evidence that runs contrary to the accepted version of history that we all learn in school.

    And I will call you, Steve.

    I should add that I’ve been in touch with two of the foremost experts in the area of the southern migration and they are both very interested to hear more of these firsthand accounts.

  18. F Roger
    Posted July 4, 2008 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Classic Catch-22. The only way Mark is a dick is if he knows Steve is lying.

    Plus, if Mark really wanted to make Steve look like a fool, he would have focused on Steve’s assertion that “hundreds” of black people living in Ypsilanti don’t know that the stores downtown serve black people.

  19. Posted July 4, 2008 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Cool kids – no cool kids – for steve or against him – god bless the usa and god bless ypsilanti! Sittin in my backyard enjoying ypsi’s annual illegal backyards fireworks show.

  20. Posted July 5, 2008 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    “For many, it is too painful to talk about and you end up being vilified because the stories run counter to the popular perception of Rosie the Riveter and the war propaganda that was promoting the idea of unity and harmony that was far from the reality of the time….”

    I was not alive during WW2 but both of my parent were. My father worked on building internment camps for Japanese Americans as a summer job (he was ineligible for the draft because he is totally deaf). There is no doubt that abuses occurred in this country during WW2 – the internment of the Japanese Americans being perhaps the most serious. Possibly some people were lured here from the rural south and endured lousy conditions. Knowing their story would be an interesting addition to the story of our involvement in that war.

    However, I think it is important to always remember the context of these abuses. The entire country was mobilized in the war effort and the stakes for failure were enormous. The governments we were fighting were truly evil. The stories I heard from my parents were of community self sacrifice for a greater good. I think it overstates the case to say “…the idea of unity and harmony…was far from the reality of the time….”

  21. Posted July 5, 2008 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I haven’t been following this too closely (life is short, after all), but compared to the much MUCH more direct human trafficking that brought African Americans to this country, I think that the Ypsituckians got off pretty easy.

  22. MaryD
    Posted July 5, 2008 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I find it amazing that after all the discussion in the last weeks and all the current news, that this is the one topic that caught you Mark. Along with a husband who now works there,
    we have an aunt that came to work at the Willow Run Bomber plant from Monroe during WWII, so very happily, because of a fat raise that helped contribute to the support of her parents and siblings. She was “white collar” and helped with what is today called human resources. Aunt has passed on to a better place now and alas cannot share her stories and memories any longer.

  23. KT
    Posted July 7, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Hundreds of African American people in Ypsilanti still think there are businesses in our town that won’t serve them? Really?

    Do they kiss your cheeks Steve when you ride up on you silver chariot to give them the good news that segregation is over?

    How insulting to the African American people of Ypsilanti.

  24. Paw
    Posted July 7, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s very plausible. I saw on Gilligan’s Island once that there are Japanese soldiers who still don’t know that World War II is over.

  25. Reclusion
    Posted July 7, 2008 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Please substitute “Ypsi” for “Dixie” as necessary.

    The rule here is total silence. We make no pretense.

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