Anne Caudill: Harry Caudill found eugenicist's plan dubious

February 4, 2013 

Harry Caudill and his wife, Anne, at home in Whitesburg in April 1990. He died almost eight months later; she now lives in southern Indiana near her children.


  • At issue: Series of Herald-Leader articles on the life of Harry M. Caudill, in particular the Dec. 21 installment, "'Night comes to the chromosomes'"

When Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep contacted me to arrange an interview about my late husband, Harry M. Caudill, he explained that the paper planned a series of articles about Eastern Kentucky as it is today.

He reminded me that 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He and many others have credited the book with calling the attention of the nation to the distressed situation in which the Appalachian coal fields found themselves.

I was encouraged that the Herald-Leader, which in the past has done much fine reporting about the region, would again turn attention to in-depth investigation, possibly leading to effective action.

It did not occur to me that reporter John Cheves, who accompanied Estep, would pick out and emphasize the visit and correspondence with one of the many hundreds who came to talk with my husband.

In the Herald-Leader, and again in an appearance on KET's Comment on Kentucky, Cheves chose to besmirch the character of Harry Caudill.

What his purpose was in doing so remains a mystery to me.

In the decades of my husband's crusade to explain the problems of the area and to find solutions, he made many enemies. Harry wrote and spoke of the exploitation of the people by the great mineral-owning companies that carried away the wealth of the region, leaving behind only day wages in the mines. He took them to task for destroying the land with surface mining. He agitated for decades to persuade Kentuckians to put a tax on the severance of the coal that was hauled away.

That tax has now brought many, many millions back to the counties. The Minimum Foundation Law brought new schools to the area. Compensation for black lung in coal miners was another effort for which he worked. His insistence on the control of surface mining and restoration efforts never ceased. It was a losing battle.

He wrote 10 books and 160 articles, and he testified numerous times before Congress about the problems of the area. He spoke to groups all across Kentucky and in other states, ever trying to bring understanding that a vital part of America was suffering.

One of the many people who came to our home was William Shockley. Harry was willing to explore any avenue to understand why his people were in such a depressed state. At that time, IQ testing had been used in the schools for many years. I have been told that the Army used the test to determine fitness to serve.

Shockley, a widely known figure, was interested in determining genetic traits. He and my husband corresponded, and he came to visit us, along with several others in his party. A college president and a doctor who had long served the Appalachian people also signed the guest book that day. Since that time, the study of genetics has advanced and today DNA testing reveals a wide range of inherited factors.

There was nothing secret about the meeting. Like hosts of others, Shockley's party came to our home to discuss Appalachian problems and sometimes to make tentative plans for action.

Harry Caudill always spoke openly and wrote about his thinking. Was he always right? No one is. After a little further correspondence, he became dubious about the direction of the discourse and dropped it.

Other endeavors, such as the Congress for Appalachian Development, instigated and organized by an aide to the secretary of the interior, were not able to get funding due to the powerful opposition of the electric power companies. CAD advocated the development of publicly owned power, which could funnel profits to the counties.

Much change came during the decades in which my husband continued to write, to speak and to teach at the university. But he was disappointed at the slow pace of change and disillusioned that the people did not themselves more actively seek reform. After years of suffering from his war-mangled leg, he became the victim of Parkinson's disease, which rapidly disabled him.

In the last week before he ended his life, he wrote another article for the Mountain Eagle urging the people to seek contributions from the coal companies for their public library. One such contribution came, $1,000 from a Kentucky owner of coal lands.

If your newspaper really wants to help the Eastern Kentucky counties, why have you focused on a minuscule and controversial subject to discredit the man who worked so tirelessly to find solutions?

At issue: Series of Herald-Leader articles on the life of Harry M. Caudill, in particular the Dec. 21 installment, "'Night comes to the chromosomes'"

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