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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 >>

Continual activism and continual harassment

West offers a description of his activities in the early 1940s. He resigned his ministerial position in Meansville, Georgia, after a group of whites beat a black man who failed to step off the sidewalk for a white woman. He moved around the South and eventually in the early 1940s settled in Lula, Georgia, where he became superintendent of schools, helping to build a school system that incorporated the wider community. However, he soon left on a fellowship that took him to some prestigious northeastern universities, and later took a teaching position at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. He and his wife continued their activism, and white racists continued to react: she lost her job and the Klan burned down their home.

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

You were working with the American Peace Mobilization at that time?
I was a pastor in a church full time then, but I wrote the column for the newspaper all the time. I resigned at Meensville. I had an ugly little incident. There was an old black man taken out one Saturday night and beaten up by a mob because he had brushed against some white ladies. He hadn't stepped out in the mud off the sidewalk. The report was that one of my leading deacons was the leader of the mob. So I resigned and never have pastored a church since then. I preached my sermon and took as the text "even as you have done it unto one of the least of these." Preached my sermon and resigned. I passed through there the other day as I came back from St. Petersburg just to recall old times. Then, after that, we came back to my grandfather's farm in north Georgia and lived there a while. I went out to Memphis and shipped out on a Mississippi River steamboat. Worked for a few months on the Mississippi. The FTA was having a convention in Memphis. The FTA was the food, agriculture and tobacco workers union. It was one of the left wing unions in the CIO. The boat docked there at Memphis and I got off and went up to the hall. Donald Henderson was the national president. I'd known Don. I went up to the hall and said "Don, I'd like to know what the chances of getting a job." I'd heard they needed some organizers. I'd like to get a job with the FTA. He said "Don, I'm sorry. You're too red for my union." I went on over to Georgia and got a job as a school superintendent under Eugene Talmadge in the state of Georgia. I was too red for Don Henderson's FTA. And that's where I got back into education. At Lula, Georgia, I was the superintendent of schools there for four years I believe it was. We attracted quite a lot of attention. We had a school that became sort of a community center. We helped organize farmer union locals. Had a cannery. A community work shop, this kind of thing. Aubrey Williams came down. After Aubrey was defeated for Rural Electrification director, you know, which Truman nominated him for, he came down and spent a week or so with us. He was then working with the farmers union. He got another job with them. From the farmers union he went to Montgomery and bought the Southern Farmer, with help from Marshall Field. For several years I did a feature story and editorials for Aubrey Williams. Had a million circulation. It had been just a regular nothing, you know. But Aubrey made it a magazine that really spoke and said something. When the Montgomery bus boycott began with Rosa Parks, Aubrey backed the boycott. And he was boycotted by his advertisers and printers. He had a million dollar printing plant there and he went bankrupt and went to Washington to die with cancer. I used to visit him up there when I was teaching at the University of Maryland. He loved the folk songs. Every time Hedy would come through town, he said don't let her miss coming over to sing for me. And she'd go over with me and she'd sing. He loved it. But he died there. There was a man that put his life on the line for what he believed in. And that was racial equality. When he died we had his funeral out in the Unitarian church. I guess there weren't over fifty or seventy-five people at the funeral and I think there were three black people at the funeral. I felt awfully sad at that funeral because here was a man that put his life on the line. As the director of NYA he had appointed Lyndon Johnson to his first important job, really, in Texas as Texas director of the NYA. When Aubrey came back to Washington he called Lyndon and Lyndon wouldn't even answer his call. Aubrey was, you know, too far to the left. Of course Eastland had had Aubrey before his committee. The same guy that had me, questioning my patriotism later on.
I was trying to get the dates.
Lula was '41, '42, '43 I guess. That period. From there I was given a Rosenwald fellowship. I had a letter once from the Rosenwald foundation saying would I be interested in taking time off to study. The school had been written up in Seventeen magazine. They had a dozen or two pictures and a story about our school at Lula. Another national magazine… several noted… Mrs. Roosevelt had made some very favorable comments and so on. So Rosenwald contacted me and gave me a scholarship fellowship to study. So I went to Chicago University, Columbia University and U. of GA. Did a year's study and came back to teach for the University of Georgia the summer after that year. I had an amusing experience teaching for the University of Georgia in summer school in north Georgia. I had three of the teachers whom I had gone to as a kid, to school in Georgia, who came back to take my class that summer. They were still going back to renew their certificates. They had never gotten a degree. It was a sort of amusing kind of experience. Then I took a job at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. I taught creative literature and a course in education. And in the summer time I directed the teachers program, teacher training school summer session. We started out with about thirty-five and in three years I built it up to 350 students. The last summer that I was there, the summer we had such a success, the president, Philip Weltner, said "Oh, you've done a wonderful job. You've got a job here as long as you want it." See, we didn't have tenure. In the fall, with the opening up of the school, the case of Rosa Lee Ingram came up. You know the story of Rosa Lee Ingram? A black woman in Georgia who, with her two kids, were sentenced to the electric chair because a white man came to their home trying to rape the mother. The kids, one of them only thirteen, got the white man's gun and shot him. So the whole three were sentenced to the chair. I was asked to speak in her defense at a public meeting. Which I did. It led, of course, to very drastic actions as far as my wife and I were concerned, our family. Rosa Lee Ingram and the two kids… we finally got the governor to commute their sentence to life imprisonment and a few years ago they were set free. But we got it pretty rough. I was fired at the University. My wife was fired. She was teaching in the county schools while I was teaching at the university. We had a farm, out on the Chattahoochee River. Our houses were burned. All my books and records were burned. See, in '48 the Ku Klux Klan was a potent factor. Stone Mountain was their demonstration place and they were strong in Atlanta. Now, of course, with a black mayor and a black Congressman and state representatives it's a different story. But in '48 the Klan was a factor there.