CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — The term redneck has a long and storied history, with a surprising connection to the labor unions of Appalachia, and although the term has been used both as a slur and as an honorable label, it has almost always been used to describe the same group of people, poor, uneducated, southern white laborers.
According to wordorigins.org, the earliest instance of the term was used in reference to the Presbyterians of Fayetteville, North Carolina, in an 1830 travelogue, but the use of the term was specific to the local area, with Merriam-Webster believing it to mean in this instance “a white member of the Southern rural laboring class.”
The term appears again in 1837, published in the Hartford, Connecticut Times, describing a swimming man, and again in 1860, published in the Macon Telegraph, in reference to a Baltimore, Maryland street gang known as the “Red Necks.”
“This is not the classic view of a redneck, but it fits the description of poor, poorly educated, white person from the south (Baltimore is often considered the northernmost ‘southern’ city), prone to anger,” wordorigins.org said.
Redneck didn’t start to form its more modern, negative meaning until 1885, when an anti-immigrant sentiment was published in the Daily Honolulu Press, describing many southern Americans as “poor white trash” and saying they were “imported from the slums of England and Europe in the seventeenth century.”
While these examples show instances of the term’s use, they do not explain how the term came to be.
According to haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu, “the term redneck has strong agricultural ties. Originally used in the latter half of the 19th century, redneck was a slur used by upper class whites to describe lower class white farmers (Huber 1995). These lower class workers would often have sunburnt, red necks from tending their fields all day; hence the name.”
However, the term would soon turn away from its prejudiced roots and instead come to represent unification. At first, the term was used on pro-union southern coal miners “due to their communist ties,” grinnell.edu said. However, the labor unions took the term and transformed it into a symbol of unity, donning red bandanas to identify themselves.
In 1921, this “Red Neck Army,” a force 10,000 strong, marched from Charleston, W.Va. to Logan and Mingo counties, “the last two non-union counties in West Virginia,” according to appalachianhistory.net. The ultimate result of this march would be the Battle of Blair Mountain, where the striking miners would face off against state, company and federal forces.
“The union had suffered a crushing defeat. Between 20 and 50 people had been killed in the battle on both sides. An unknown number had been wounded, probably in the hundreds,” appalachianhistory.net said.
In modern times, redneck has come to mean many things. For some, it is a term of pride that shows they carry old, southern beliefs, a descriptor with wildly different connotations ranging from a strong belief in independence to support of white nationalism. Meanwhile, others have come to believe that the term demeans them and superimposes negative and/or inaccurate stereotypes to them.
Either way, the term’s history has become intertwined with the poor, southern white laborers of America and stands as a projection of the beliefs of those who use it.