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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 >>

Opposing racism in the New Deal with help from a Pentecostal minister

West remembers that the Kentucky Workers Alliance, which he directed, demanded that Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs during the New Deal did not discriminate on the basis of race. His ideas were controversial enough that the sheriff of Paintsville sought to put West in jail. He hid out in the home of Elihu Trusty, an illiterate Pentecostal minister who was a powerful speaker. This passage presents a vivid picture of Trusty and life for the poor in the rural South.

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:
So how long were you….
DON WEST:
I was there in Kentucky…. They elected me to state organizer of the workers alliance. Giles Cooper was president. Allan McElfhesh was executive secretary. I have some pictures in here of some of the black people who were leaders in the organization. It was completely integrated. No discrimination whatever. And the demands we made were that WPA should have no discrimination on colored and so on. I did lots of getting around over the state. Paintsville. I remember once I was scheduled to make a speech in the courthouse at Paintsville and I got there and the sheriff arrested me and put me in jail. I'd been in there a little while and I hear some people out talking. I looked out and here were a bunch of workers coming down the street. They had a confab with the sheriff and said "West is scheduled to speak here in the courthouse tonight." I remember Frank Daniels…. Frank later became sheriff there himself. I think Frank Daniels was the sharpest eyed man I ever saw and I don't reckon I ever saw him that he didn't have a sixshooter on him. This is a characteristic of a lot of east Kentucky people. I think it was Frank that said "You're either going to let him out. He's scheduled to speak. You're either going to let him out or we're going to break the door down." So I was released and we had our meeting. But that was a pretty common thing. At Paintsville there was a man by the name of Trusty. Elihu Trusty. He lived in a little outlying section called Gobblers Nob. He was a holy roller preacher, fundamentalist preacher. But Elihu Trusty was one of the best union speakers I've ever seen and he was illiterate. He couldn't read and write, but he could really make a moving speech and he understood the issues, the purposes and principles of the union very well. I guess I've taken him on I don't know how many dozens of places just to speak. Because he could really inform the people and he did it in a way that they listened. Now I stayed at his home when I was in Paintsville area. He lived in a shack. In the room that I slept in I could actually—and I did—crawl through a crack in the wall. If I came in late I didn't have to open the front door and disturb Elihu and his family. I could crawl through a crack and go to bed on a corn shuck tick. A tick full of corn shucks. They didn't have rye straw, like we had down in Georgia. We always used rye straw for bed ticks. And for breakfast we would have bulldog gravy and biscuits. Bulldog gravy is made with lard with flour stirred in it and water poured in it and, you know, thickened up. And salt and biscuits and bulldog gravy. Elihu had several beautiful girls. Sadly, some of them became prostitutes because that's the only way they had of getting just a little bit of money. They were beautiful girls. They were gentle girls. But Paintsville… a hotel or two they could work in. We kept one of his daughters over in Louisville. Lived with us for a year or so. The last baby they had they named Mabel Don. It was a girl. They were going to name it after me. My wife's first name was Mabel. So they combined the two of us. Mabeldon. I have I don't know how many kids named after me in east Kentucky. It's sort of amusing.