Class warriors in the hills

July 25, 2003

A picture that arrives with every issue of his THES took Norman Bonney back to 1967, when he joined the War on Poverty in rural West Virginia.

Every week subscribers who receive their THES by mail receive an accompanying insert. On the back of this is a copy of the front page of the March 1 2002 edition. This features a striking photograph of a rural couple illustrating a book review on the history of marriage. By remote chance, I once knew the two people in that picture. In fact, in the summer of 1967, I lodged with them while assisting in the War on Poverty Community Action Programme during my graduate studies at the University of Chicago.

The couple are Nimrod and Mollie Workman. They lived in a former mining camp in Chattaroy, Mingo County, West Virginia. Like most of the population of this very poor state, they had their origins among the 18th and early 19th-century English and Scottish-Irish settlers of the Appalachians. These people were left in the hills as subsequent westward movement, industrialisation and immigration led to the growth of the big cities of the north and west over the past 200 years.

The settlers were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but poor and underprivileged and nothing like the famed and privileged Wasps of the East Coast. Near Chattaroy was the site of a famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. There were as many Hatfields in the Mingo County phone book as there are Buchans in that of Peterhead today. There was a small black American population here as well, but they tended to live in segregation, although contemporary accounts suggest that down the mines there was much more equality as blacks and whites faced common dangers.

Mollie and Nimrod had 11 children, most of whom had gone to live in Ohio or Florida in search of a better life by the time I arrived in West Virginia.

Tronnie, their youngest, lived at home as he was still at school. On July 4 that summer, several of the children returned with their families to visit.

We all sat on rocking chairs on the porch, eating and partying.

Early every morning, in keeping with the daily pattern of the miners' work rhythm, Mollie would fry up a big pile of potatoes, and we would mix up the generous serving with her homemade gravy and eat the dish with scone-type "biscuits" and butter.

Nimrod had been a miner but was off work, suffering from black lung disease. He would often roam the hills in search of ginseng root, which he sold to supplement his other sources of income. Many unemployed former miners were on work training and relief programmes sponsored by the War on Poverty, which yielded income for their families. It was known locally as the "Happy Pappy" programme because it extended financial assistance to intact families when previously it had been available only to single parents.

The plight of the poor Appalachians had come to public notice in the US with John Kennedy's presidential campaigning in the area. The locals had a special affinity with the millionaire president who, with his wife, had shown such interest in them. His photo was as common as pictures of Jesus on the walls of their houses and shacks.

The young student activists working for the War on Poverty that summer caused quite a stir. We drew attention to conditions in the area and challenged the local political structures to do something about them. One day I would like to return to Mingo County to see if things have changed.

But sadly, all I have seen and learnt in other places since then suggests that they will still be fundamentally the same.

Norman Bonney is professor of economics and public policy at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.

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