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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Economic disparities in a small southern community

Here, Arnow offers an anecdote about living in Burnside, Kentucky. Vividly describing Burnside as a small community where everybody knew everybody else, Arnow explains her growing awareness of economic disparities. According to Arnow, it was difficult for her to determine differences in socioeconomic status based on appearance and it was not until she saw a man picking up bits of coal next to the train tracks that she began to realize that community members experienced varying levels of material comfort. Her description offers an intriguing portrait of life in a small southern community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. 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 by the time you finished high school, as you say, most of the people were going on to college. But in the first grade, when there were fifty of you, it sounds more like there were very poor children and also rich children.
There were some with well-to-do parents.
Were there children who didn't have shoes? I mean, for example, you were talking about when Grandmother Denney was there and you'd have really pretty dresses and things. Could you see a big difference in how the children were dressed?
I don't recall noticing much difference in the first and second grades, but I did notice it later, and I did notice that some dropped out in the winter. I thought for many years we were of the poorest because our mother complained a lot about how little money we had, even though Papa worked. He made what other men made, I think, and he received some money from his oil rights, which, when oil was high as during World War I amounted to quite a lot. Then as a tool dresser, he made higher wages. I hadn't noticed any difference, because everybody came to school starched and ironed, and we dressed a good deal alike. The well-to-do children you couldn't have told-or to my causal eye; I never studied it-perhaps you could have seen differences in dress. But one day I'd been sent on an errand to the store. We were on the hill, and down in the lower town near the rivers were most of the stores, other businesses, and lumber mills. In the upper town most of the people lived, and we were higher on the hill. And as I crossed the railway tracks, between the upper and lower town, I saw a man with a sack on his shoulder, bending over and picking up small pieces of coal. South of us there were coal mines, and the coal cars were always passing. Later I asked Papa, "Why would anybody be picking up those little bits of coal fallen from passing coal cars? Why didn't they burn wood?" I couldn't imagine anybody being without wood. We had about thirty acres of land. Most of it was in cut-over timber, so there was always plenty of wood. Papa said maybe the man didn't have any wood, and I said, "Well, what does he pick up coal for?" "Well, he doesn't have any money to buy it." And I couldn't imagine that, any more than I could imagine anyone being hungry. I don't know. Of course, we didn't have much money, but we had our own vegetable garden and milk cows and this and that. Practically everybody in town had a vegetable garden. Many of them kept cows. They'd stable them at night and drive them out to pasture next day. In warm weather the cows weren't kept in the stables overnight; they just wandered around the town and slept where they wished.
And I've heard many funny stories of boys, sometimes young men going out to see their best girls, coming home, and stumbling over cows. The street lights in our town were few and far between and very dim. Quite a place was Burnside. Everybody knew you, and you knew everybody.