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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 >>

Tensions over organizing efforts at the Berry School

Students at Berry School reached out to West for help with a strike, West remembers. He sent a young organizer in his stead, who made the mistake of leaving a note on a striker's door. Berry School officials discovered the note and threatened West at his home. West also antagonized school officials with a piece critical of the school in <cite>The New Republic</cite> that spurred a lot of response.

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

Later on there was a strike at Berry's school that got a little publicity.
That was after I was there. A good while later. I was connected with that. I was in Atlanta during that period. This is a thing I didn't think to mention last night. While I was working with the Angelo Herndon defense committee in Atlanta. The students, that summer, were working…. See, we used to stay on the campus and work in the summer to pay for our board and room on through the rest of the year. The students were complaining that they were only getting ten cents an hour for their labor. And a committee of students came down to Atlanta to see me and said "Would you come up and organize us? We want to organize." Well, I was tied up and couldn't leave at that time but I sent a young student organizer up there that was connected with some kind of student union. He went up and he was not too discriminating. He went to see a certain boy that had come to see me. I gave him his name and address. And he left a note on the door. The boy was not in and he left a note on the door. And of course the housemother got the note and turned it in to the principal. The note said get all the boys and meet me at a certain gate. And when they met they were surrounded by a bunch of deputy sheriffs and they were arrested and the boy was put in jail. So we had a big ruckus about this. One of the school officials, with about fifteen of the chosen students, came down to Kennisaw, Georgia, where my father lived. They came down to see me. I wasn't at home. But I rode a motorcycle in those days and I came in just as they were leaving, about 100 yards up the road. They saw me coming, they knew it was me on the motorcycle. So they blocked the road and stopped me and we had a powwow for over an hour. One of the things I remember. They said "If you ever come on the campus again we are going to string you up to the first limb we can get you to." I was never to set my foot on the campus again. That was a sort of an interesting thing.
Why did the students think to come down to see you in the first place? You had some connection?
Yes, I guess they knew something of my attitude. I was pretty well known for believing in organization. I had written a little piece for the New Republic about Berry School.
Yes, well, I was pointing out that the students had grievances, justified grievances, and had absolutely no voice of their own. And they were paid arbitrarily. Determined that they should be paid ten cents an hour and so on. One day, for example, I received 300 letters in one mail. The postman had a special box to bring them out to my father's place. Three hundred letters. And the editor of the New Republic wired me. He said "We have received hundreds of letters here, protesting what you've written, saying that it's wrong and that you were lying." I said why don't you send a special investigator down. I don't know whether you've ever heard of the writer, Hamilton Basso. Hamilton Basso was a South Carolinian, I believe. Anyway, he wrote books. He was quite a well known writer then. They got Hamilton Basso to go to the campus and do a story, do an investigation. He spent a week on the campus and he wrote his story, for the New Republic. And he vindicated everything that I had written plus bringing out a lot of things that I hadn't. Like, for example, he never was allowed, on the campus, to be out of sight of a special agent that tailed him everywhere he went, all over the campus. He wrote all of this up and submitted it to the school officials for any reply, if they had any reply to it. They had none, so they published Basso's thing, which, as I say, vindicated everything I said. So I had become pretty well known for that kind of thing. And I'd been active there on the defense of Angela Hearndon.