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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 >>

Expulsion after protesting strict rules at Lincoln Memorial University

West worked his way through Lincoln Memorial University (LMU), where despite his work schedule, he felt a great deal of freedom. This freedom was limited: school rules precluded student participation in campus affairs and in his senior year, West helped organize protests against these rules that lead to his expulsion. (He was reinstated and graduated in 1929.) West also describes how he took control of his siblings' education, for the most part because his sharecropper father did not have the money to do so himself.

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

So you left Berry School, then about 192—
Yes, it must have been 23 when I left there. I took a job with the Southern Bell Telephone Company. Stringing wires from Gainesville to Talluleh Falls up through the north Georgia mountains. Southern Bell was putting in some new wires. We went along sort of like an extra gang on the railroad. We'd spend a week here and a week there, one place to another. Toward the end of the summer I wrote to Lincoln Memorial, telling them that I didn't have my diploma but I had seventeen units. You had to have twenty-one units to graduate from Berry and in ordinary colleges sixteen units would get you in. I asked if it would be possible to get into college on that basis. They thought it would. Finally, after I finished the summer working with Southern Bell, I hitchhiked up to LMU and I got on the campus. My father, as I said, was a sharecropper and he always was hard up to get money to buy his fertilizer and the things to run on while he made a crop. So I had given him all the money I had except I had enough to get to college and I had $1.65 left. I went in to see the dean. Dean Lewis. And I told him the story. I said I'd like to go to college, but I don't have any money. I said "I've got a total of $1.65 in cash." Well, he says "Are you willing to work?" I said "I've never known anything else but work. I'm not afraid of work." So he says "If you're willing to work, we think you can make it." So I did everything from milk cows, dig ditches to cut corn to carry laundry and wash dishes and pick chickens. Everything that you can conceive of to get through college. I don't say this bragging, but I always sent money home to my father. Because he was extremely poor. To help him with the other kids, you know. And then I worked to pay for the tuition for my older sister to come on to Berry and then come on to LMU. She came on with me to college.
Why did you want brothers and sisters to go to Berry?
Well, at the time that they came, my older sister came, I was at school there and I wanted them all to get as much education as possible. That was the only school I knew then. See, I was just a teenage kid. I was there. It was the only thing I knew about school. Before I went there, when we were living in Douglass county then, I was walking to high school. It must have been five or six miles from Lithia Springs to Douglassville. We lived on a place we were renting down there, little farm. That was a long walk. And my father said "If you can make it, making your expenses, I will be willing for you to leave." You know, it used to be that a boy had to stay at home until he was 21. Then he was his own man. But he says "You are free if you want to make it. If you can make it." So that's how I happened to go off on my own. I was about sixteen or so. I'd gone through the ninth grade in Douglassville. That's where I had the problem of having to wear bib overalls and all the little town boys had other kind of pants. But I continued to wear the bib overalls.
Lincoln Memorial was a fairly strict school, too, wasn't it?
It was fairly. Not as much as Beria and not as much as Berry. I really felt great freedom when I first got there because they didn't tie you down. Not like Berry or Beria. But Lincoln had lots of rigid rules and regulations. Students didn't have much to say about campus affairs. Policies and so on. So there again, when I was a senior, we got involved in activities demanding more rights and privileges as students. And we had a strike. Of course I was expelled there at LMU. As I indicated in my talk last night, I was eventually re-instated. But when I was leaving LMU I had a younger brother. I didn't want him to go to Berry and I didn't want him to go to LMU. But there was a school over in Kentucky called Stuart Robinson School at Blackey, Kentucky. Blackey is in Letcher county. I'd been up and visited with the school and knew the principal. So this brother of mine—he was several years younger—I had him come up to LMU. I bought him a bus ticket at Cumberland Gap to go over to Whitesburg and to Blackey, to get in school there. I paid for his first entrance fee. I had $5 left when I'd bought his bus ticket. So I hitchhiked from Cumberland Gap over to Louisville, Kentucky. I had written to the Presbyterian seminary. I was going to be a Presbyterian preacher. And I had a promise of a scholarship. I had my records and all on file. So I hitchhiked over to Louisville and I got there a couple of days early. I started with $5 and I had just a little bit of change in my pocket when I got to Louisville. I went up to the dormitory and asked the house mother if I could stay in a dormitory room rather than having to go to a hotel or somewhere else. Her first question "Why don't you go to a hotel?" I said "I just don't have the money." "Why do you come in here early and all that." She wasn't very friendly. We in the mountains have always been accustomed to being particularly friendly with strangers and people who are from out of the way places. We always invite people to stay all night, you know. Hospitality is extended. So I was a little bit put off by this lady. I slept in the room that night and I kept thinking now if this is the kind of spirit this Presbyterian institution has, I don't want to stay here. So the next morning I put my little duds together in my bag and started hitchhiking to Nashville, Tennessee. Got down there and went into Vanderbilt University. That was 1929.