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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 >>

Workers' rights efforts greeted by harassment

West remembers that as the Angelo Herndon case reached its conclusion, harassment from police grew intense. West was renting an apartment under an assumed name. The harassment continued into the 1960s: West remembers the Internal Revenue Service raiding the folk center he set up in Pipestem, West Virginia, and he recalls hiding in the home of a black minister as the police pursued him.

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:
You came to North Carolina because of the Burlington case?
DON WEST:
Let me finish just a little more about Georgia. We had some farmer support. I was trying to remember… out of Stone Mountain there was a farmer, just a small farmer. Emory Fields. I've been to his home lots of times. He was actually right by Herndon's side when Herndon was leading this group up to the mayor's office. He has told me numbers of times "I should have been arrested instead of Herndon. But they arrested Herndon because he was black. They thought they could get by with it." He was a native Georgian. His name was Emory Fields.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Is he still living?
DON WEST:
I guess he's dead now. I haven't seen him in forty years. He was pretty middle aged then. But he had children, a wife and family that were all dedicated. And so there were farmers, there were white students, there were black students, there were attorneys, three attorneys— Mack, Ben Davis and John Gear—all working on that thing. And numbers of white cotton mill workers. And black ministers. Just before the Supreme Court made its decision to free Herndon. it got so that the cops, the police, were getting very vigilent. They were watching everything that went on. Almost impossible to move without their being on you. And it got so that I could hardly move around. Actually, you see, as I've tried to say, we were underground. I din't even carry my own name and where I was living I didn't live under my name because, you know, it was an underground situation. I rented this apartment under a pen name, an assumed name.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But when you worked with people like Mercer Evans, did they know you by your real name?
DON WEST:
Not always. Many people that I've worked with wouldn't now know me. I've lived under half a dozen different names. I get a little aside here, but a couple of years ago I had trouble with the IRS. I guess I was on Nixon's enemy list. See, Connie and I started the folk life center over at Pipestem. We saved money. One of our salaries we saved for ten years and lived on the other. We got pretty good salaries. . So we had a nice little piece of money. We bought 600 acres of land. We started building buildings and started a program. Out of our own funds. And then we got some donations. We were just doing it then. We hadn't incorporated you see. So the IRS came in and they held me responsible for personal income for every dollar that had been donated to go into the program. We had 125 kids there! So I had to dig up, from my own personal funds, $4,000. And they came in one night at midnight. Couple of secret service. He flashed his card. He was with the secret service. "Well, what do you want?" They wanted to question me on my tax. They took me over to Princeton to the jail. They were going to put me in jail overnight, you know, like I was some kind of a desperado might run away. It just happened that the sheriff over there was a good friend of mine and it didn't work. He said he'd be responsible. We had an interview then. Wanted to talk. They were going to tape it, just like you're taping here. And the first thing he said—this was the secret service man—"Hold up your hand. Take an oath." I said "Now wait a minute, this is a discussion about tax problems. I'm not in any court and I'm not about to take an oath." Well then, "we're going to record it." I said "Okay, I don't mind you recording it. I haven't anything to cover up." And the first question he asked was "Have you ever lived under another name?" I said "What does this have to do with my taxes for 1972?" And I said "In the first place, I know that you know more about me than I remember. Because you've got the whole record." See, they knew about all these things because they've always kept those records. That was necessary back in that period. You couldn't be open with it. We printed handbills and papers and distributed them, very quietly and very secretly. I remember, just about the week before I left there I went to visit one of our workers on the committee. He was a well known black minister over in the black community in the west side of town—not Auburn Avenue section—Hunter Street, down in that area. I'd no more than gotten into the living room and we sat down to talk and the wife looked out the window and coming up the walk were half a dozen cops. "Oh my gosh," she said, "here are the police." She grabbed me and took me into the kitchen and raised up a trap door. "Get down there right quick." I went under and she threw a rug over it. But they searched the whole house. They were searching for me, see. They had a warrant for me. They searched the house and didn't find a thing. They left and then of course I got out. It got so that it looked like I was always just one jump ahead of them. I didn't want to be taken in then, of course. So one night Ben Davis says "I tell you what we'd better do." We had our committee together and he proposed that he take me out of town. He put me in his car. Put some old quilts and things over me in the back seat. He drove me out to Decatur. Then you could flag a bus anywhere on the road and get a ride. So I flagged a bus for a conference in New York. Shortly after that, of course, Herndon was freed. And then the Burlington thing came up in '34. I came over here and was in charge of this committee for—I think it took us about a year before we got this case settled over here.