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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Berry School seeks to indoctrinate poor whites with white supremacy

West remembers his experiences in the 1920s at Berry School, a school that received a lot of funding from Henry Ford, who West believes was trying to raise a generation of compliant workers. Teachers had a different agenda: they indoctrinated their students with films like D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," trying to divorce them from their racially progressive mountain roots. West did not like the school and was eventually expelled during his senior year.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
But what you're saying now is that your great grandfather was married to a Cherokee woman. Did you go to Berry School?
DON WEST:
Yes, we went out to Berry. It was a school founded by Miss Martha Berry for mountain children. A great deal was made about the school, made over the school. Henry Ford, for example, put I don't know how many million dollars into it to Berry. And he did it, I'm quite sure, with the idea that he was helping to keep the pure attitude of the mountain people separated from any kind of ideas of organization, union. Ford used to come down to Berry when we were students there. He doted on the old mountain folk dancing. I danced with Mrs. Ford many, many times. She and Henry would be out there on the floor dancing the square dances. He gave jobs in Detroit to lots of mountain kids, Berry kids. As I may have mentioned to you previously, twice while I was at Berry they showed this Birth of a Nation, taken from Dixon's Klansman. A very vicious, anti-Negro kind of slanderous movie. And before the movie would be shown the history teachers would prepare us in history class, you know. Give us all the data back of this thing. I believed that if, after that picture was shown, a black man had come across campus he might have gotten beaten up or something. Because it stirred up a lot of hard feeling. My feeling about it is that the missionary school such as that… one of their purposes, intentional or otherwise, was to separate the mountain youth from their real heritage. Our real heritage had been a heritage of opposition to slavery. Abolitionism sentiment. Many thousands of our people joined in the Union army rather than the Confederate army. But at Berry we never learned a thing about this. You see, Berry was only about 75 miles south of Jasper, Georgia, where the Union flag was put on the courthouse every single day throughout the four years of Civil War, there in the Georgia mountains. And we'd never learn that kind of thing at Berry. We were shown The Birth of a Nation.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What years were you there?
DON WEST:
Let's mee, must have been the early part of the '20s. Maybe about 1921 or 22 to '26, I guess. I got expelled at Berry when I was in my senior year, but I had enough units, as they call it, to get into college. So I got into Lincoln Memorial—
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did you get expelled for?
DON WEST:
Well, there was a faculty member, who was chaplain, and he was the one faculty member who fraternized with the students. He had a victrola in his apartment and he'd let us come up and play. Had a lot of old folk records. I don't know how he happened to get them because he was a Presbyterian from Philadelphia. But he was very friendly with us and we all liked him. One of the things they didn't like at Berry was for a faculty member to, as they call it, fraternize with the students. So they fired him. There were three of us who protested very strongly, too strongly I suppose, until we got our walking papers along with this chaplain.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were the teachers mostly northern—
DON WEST:
Mostly they were. They would bring in the teachers mostly from somewhere up north to teach. Most of these mission schools in the mountains, I would say… my observation has been that most of them were staffed by northern people. Martha Berry was southern.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was she like?
DON WEST:
I used to live in her home. I was her personal clean up boy around her house for one semester. She was very, I guess, benevolent and very conscious of her superior aristocratic position. We were treated like little servant kids.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you feel about that at the time?
DON WEST:
I didn't particularly like it. Never did.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was the school like?
DON WEST:
Very strict. Girls and boys were strickly separated. When we went to chapel one marched in on one aisle and one on the other. You'd get a demerit if you were ever seen, you know, having anything to do with a girl, like even speaking to one or smiling at each other. Very, very strict. Girls on their side and the boys on their side on the campus and everywhere. Never let us get together except occasionally we'd have a social, as they called it, or some kind of a little party. And particularly when the Henry Ford group came down they'd get us all together and we acted like we were real human beings then, you know. Ford was out there on the floor. used to get amused at the way they'd hook up the old oxen to a wagon and drive it all around the campus when Ford's party was there. They'd maneuver it to have the ox wagon meet the Ford group at every possible chance. As I said in the little thing I wrote, maybe they thought he might give us a sliver or two. Later, of course, he did. Millions.