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Transcript of interview with Bettijane Burger, May 2, 1993, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project


Q: Bettijane, let's go back now 65 years ago to 1928, your Mother was sent from Ohio to a little community on Hollow Run of Blue Creek, Scotts Run, that's outside of Morgantown. Take us back to the time and tell us what it was, what kind of a world she walked into in 1921. What did she see there?
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BB: The world she walked into was a far cry from Wooster College, but is was a place of dirt and slag and muddy roads and yellow creeks and she thought she would start with the children. So, she walked up the hill, after she had taken the bus out of Morgantown, to the Stump Town schoolhouse and she introduced herself and the teachers knew that she was coming. And she took the children outside and taught them games that they had never been taught before. And she invited them to come to Sunday School. And they came and they kept coming, maybe because she gave them new opportunities. She made them believe in themselves. She gave them happy times.


Q: Betty J., when your Mom came out to Scotts Run, was she shocked by what she saw?
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BB: My Mom was really shocked. She had never seen to much poverty. The kids were playing by the railroad tracks, around coal cars. They had no books. Nobody had finished high school. Kids were going in the mines to work, the boys. The girls were getting married or having large families. There was no hope.

Q: What did she come to do? Not literally, but figuratively. What did she think she had come there to do and how did it change?
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BB: She was asked to come and start a Sunday School program, which she did, but, children began to come to her and tell her about conditions in their homes -- like, "my brother is sick," "we don't have any clothes," "we don't have any heat," "we don't have any money," "we don't have any food," and so she would go up to the houses and begin seeing that there was a community beyond the Sunday School that she had to do something about.

Q: What was it in that community that she had to do something about? What was it she had to do something about?
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BB: There were coal miners, and as the Union movement was beginning, there were strikes and, instead of the Unions, or instead of the coal companies negotiating with the people to start the Unions, they would fire people. And then, they would bring in strike-breakers from other countries, from 29 other countries, to Scotts Run. So, the people who were out of work, had nothing. There was no welfare. There were no food stamps. There was nothing, so, when you have nothing, you have needs and then you have poverty.

Q: Tell me about some of the specific things, that over the years, she came to see that were going on. Children would lead her home and take her into their houses, and over time, she began to see more and more of what life was really like inside the home in the Six Streams??? Tell me about that.
BB: Well, Mom told me about the typical things that we've heard about poverty. The newspapers on the walls and --

Q: Stop, for a second. Yea, we have to retake. Do you hear when that big truck goes by? You probably can.

Q: OK. Let's start again. Tell Mom. What did your Mom?
BB: Give me. Feed me the question.

Q: As children began to take your Mom into their homes, what did your Mom see?
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BB: Mom saw a lot of poverty and newspapers on the walls. No clothes for kids. No shoes. Draft. Sickness. Bedbugs. Lice. Women would come to the door with bruises on their faces. She would wash lice out of people's hair, children's hair, after she got to know them better. Hopelessness. There was no food. No money. I mean, if you lost your job, you had nothing. Maybe, it you were lucky, you got $8.00 from the county. When the welfare system came in, that wasn't too much, either. But, the money never went far enough and the people who worked for the mines, of course, as that old song goes "Owe their soul to the company store," there was nothing left over. So, she saw every kind of problem. She talked to one woman who had a lot of children and when she became pregnant, again, the woman said "I cannot have another child." So, she used a knitting needle to try to induce an abortion or she would use lye and, of course, Mom would go up there and try to mop up after them.

Q: She, also, became very acquainted with a family of eleven that -- what's the name of the family? You mentioned that one family member still survives from that family. What did she come to see in that family?
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BB: There was a large family named the Voithofers, and, the Mother died young and left a large family of sons and daughters, afterwards, and, the father was a coal miner. I don't, now, whether he was laid off or not. But, Mom took one of the daughters, named Ruth, under her wing and encouraged her to finish high school and this was unheard of at the time. High school was for somebody else. You didn't finish high school at Scotts Run. You went into the mines or you got married or, maybe went into the Army. I don't know, but she Mom got started a club called the "U High School Club" to try to put prestige into education because there was nothing of prestige in education, that was for somebody else. And so, Ruth was among one of the first group of people to graduate from high school and, then she worked really hard with her to get her into Wooster College which was my Mom's alma mater.
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And, she did that and dropped out almost, a couple of times. But, when she did graduate from college, the first one from Scotts Run, the college, at commencement ceremonies, gave her an award for extraordinary courage and Ruth went on to work in the labor union movement and her daughter went to Stanford University and went on to work in the labor movement, herself.

Q: You might want to retake. That's OK. I heard it. Come on, let's go Chip. Your mother came to see an even darker side, though, of the poverty. She came to see that the poverty was producing a lot of pressure within the families of Scotts Run and she came to see something that didn't even have a name, at that time -- battered women and child abuse. Tell me about it.
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BB: When my Mom and I talked about all this, years later, and with my work in the women's movement, I became really involved in the issue of domestic violence and I asked her one time if she ever say domestic violence.

Q: Could you speak about it in terms of directly about her experience, rather that an experience you and she shared? What did your Mom "see?"
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BB: When the coal companies would give out their checks at the end of the week, the coal miners would go to the store and buy a lot of liquor and, I guess, they would take that out on their families because, sometimes, Mom would come to the door and a women would come to the door with her face all full of bruises, but you didn't call it that, you didn't call it domestic violence, then. It was just, "Well, those miners just had a big day," and maybe the miners were acting out their sense of hopelessness because they were brought over here under, maybe false pretenses, that this was really going to be a really great opportunity for them and they moved into Scotts Run in these shacks where the chickens were running all over the place, and outdoor privies and they worked very hard in dirty conditions and had little to show for it. So, Scotts Run, itself, had nothing but a beer garden and a post office, until the Shack came along.

Q: What was the Shack?
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BB: Well, when my Mom first got to Stump Town schoolhouse to start the program, she was given an empty schoolhouse. But, she soon outgrew it, because of all the programs that she had put into it. So, she began looking around for a bigger building and she saw a company store down near the railroad tracks that used to be a horse stable and there was nothing in it. So, she went to the head of the Pursglove Coal Company and asked if she could have it and, after harassing him for awhile, he gave in and gave her the old place. So, she cleaned it out and put straw on the floor and the shelves that used to hold food, she filled with books and she put a shower in the back and the kids had to pay to use a shower. Just 5 cents, or so, but the reason she did that was because she felt kids should learn to earn to do something -- earn their way to do something -- and, not just get everything for free, but work so that they could get something.

Q: Your Mom, also, learned that, with the exception of the Shack, she wasn't going to get too much -- I'll hold that question. Chip, I don't think there's anything, we're just going to have to either move the mike in. I mean, it's a regular, consistent, every minute and a half a truck goes by. So


Q: Betty Jane, tell me, in a paragraph, tell me the little anecdote about your Mother's encounter with the coal company when she tried to get seeds for the garden program.
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BB: My mom felt that if the people didn't have enough food, that the logical thing would be to grow their own, because I think one of my Mom's major themes in life was "self sufficiency." And, so, she thought that they could grow their own garden. So, she went to the head of the coal company and asked for money for seeds and they turned her down. When I think about that now, I think that really wouldn't have cost very much, it probably would have been a tax write-off. I don't think the coal companies really saw the people for the lives that they were in. Maybe, the company didn't see that the people that worked for them had any value on their own. Otherwise, how could they turn away from what they were creating out there?

Q: Your Mother said that we need to learn from people who are suffering. What did your Mother learn from people who were suffering all around her for six years, seven years?
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BB: I think my Mom learned that when people suffer, somehow, most of them survive. A lot of them don't, because she buried dead children, dressed them for their funeral. But, I think she saw that, under incredible odds, these people were going to survive. Although, they were going to survive, maybe, in the middle-class kind of experience that the rest of us have. But, surviving and living through the conditions that they did, and not being hopelessly depressed, or falling apart completely. Somehow, they live in those ugly, little places and didn't dress very well, according to other people's standards. But, just making it from day to day, going through the things that they had to go through, I mean, dirty jobs underground and nothing else to do and no other businesses. Just isolated out there. Somehow, they made it through.
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Although, my Mom told me one time that she lived longer than a lot of shack kids who were younger than she was. She would show me the newspaper and an obituary and she would say, "Oh, this used to be one of my kids out at Scotts Run and there they are, they died." And, I think she realized later, that because they grew up in such unhealthy surroundings, maybe their drinking water probably wasn't very clean and they didn't eat right, and maybe the air wasn't that good, either. And, I don't think they had a chance compared to her. But, I think, coming from some more privilege and with her sense of religion and social justice, I think that the people of Scotts Run taught her a lot about living, about what's important. Family, extended family. I think she learned from that.

Q: But the lessons that she learned were not commonly learned by the more affluent people of the surroundings.
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BB: No, and sometimes, sometimes I think the people of Morgantown turned their faces away from Scotts Run. A lot of them didn't know that it existed. Most of them had never been there, so, she put the kids on a bus and she took them into town. One time, she took a group of high school kids to a restaurant and one of the people on that little group was a member of "U High School." And, his name was George Fumich. He told me, much later, he said, "When your Mom took us to have lunch at a restaurant, we were very scared; and she taught us that we could do this and this was the first time we'd sat down and ordered from a menu, but we were all very scared." And, George went on to be, I think, head of the College of Mining Resources at West Virginia University.

Q: Aside from that viewpoint in your mind, what do you think that the people of Scotts Run, the miners, miners' families thought of her?
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BB: Mom said that she never really got any hostility from the people out there. They were very open to her. There was no resistance. I think maybe the parents were glad that the kids had something to do other than play around the coal cars or maybe hang around the beer garden where they weren't supposed to be. Because she gave them something to do in a lot of ways and began to give other opportunities to the people, like the cobbler shop or the choirs or the plays. And, when she started the library, The library was the first thing that she put in after the Sunday School. Books. The wider world of books. Once you read a lot of books, you are really never the same, even though you are not going to travel all those places.
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And, there was one guy who kind of hung around and read a lot of books and his name was Walt Sura. And, he went on to become accepted into a university in California without any entrance exam. But, that hooked him. And, even though he couldn't go to school, he ended up joining the Army and went later. I think she just opened a lot of worlds to people where they had no options.

Q: She, also, came though to see a down-side to help and that was that there was a culture dependency that these people, as the New Deal moved in, they became dependent on government. How did she react to that? Tell me about that and tell me how she reacted.
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BB: As the welfare system came in under a great emergency, and of course, very needed; she used the expression "being on the dole, being dependent on other people to take care of you" and, I think she always fought that. She tried to put in a community council where the people themselves were on the council.

Q: Sorry.
BB: That was the logical place.


Q: Betty Jane, tell me what your Mom's opinion of government programs was and how it created a sense of people being "on the dole."
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BB: I think the good thing about government programs was that when times got rough, they finally stepped in and helped people who were nearly starving.

Q: Why don't you start with "My Mom?"
BB: I was going to say "but", I was going to say --

Q: No, put it in your Mom's experience.
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BB: Mom was very grateful that the people finally showed up to help her Scotts Run folks. Whether, they were the Red Cross or the Quaker, all Quakers, or, also, the Federal Government. And, the programs came in and people were helped. But, what began to happen was that, as so many programs came in, she began to see a sense of dependency. She called it being "on the dole" and so, the people would stop maybe working on their own or trying to be self-sufficient or find their own creative solutions to being independent. They would just wait for the check or wait for some help and not really think about living their own lives and being in charge of their own lives.

Q: She didn't go for that?
BB: No, because, well, see, I'm starting "no, because." Ask me the question, again.
Q: Why was her philosophy different?
BB: I think.

Q: What was her philosophy that was so different?
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BB: I think Mom's philosophy of life was that you are in charge of your destiny and that if you have a piece of, if you have a say in your destiny, then that gives you dignity. For instance, with the Community Council that was run by the people from Scotts Run themselves. They decided what they were going to do. They put up a bulletin board. They started a playground. The chefs. People didn't just come in and hand out food and have it all cooked and ready for them, but she got boys from the community to cook the food. And, if you wanted a shower, which cost five cents, you had to earn the money in a certain way. So that there were logical consequences. There was growth. There was working towards something. There was involvement, instead of just passively being taken care of.

Q: In the end, what do you think your Mom accomplished?
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BB: I think my Mom gave the people of Scotts Run hope. There were people who finished high school and college. There was a boy named Sanford Luther Fox, who was a great writer. He was very artistic and he was from a farming family and the farmers weren't as bad off as the coal miners. He ended up being Chief of Correspondence at the White House. So, there were people who were able to get out of that place that didn't have hardly, that had hardly, any options and find that they had choices in life and that they could be happy. That they could be healthy. That they didn't have to stay there all their lives. That there was a whole world out there for them to conquer or experience in whatever way they did.

Q: Do you ever think that she sensed, or do you, let me just talk about you. Looking back on it now, it just seems though, unfortunately, that your Mom's experience fits this pattern. That West Virginians need help from the outside.
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BB: I think what my Mom did differently was that, even though she went into Scotts Run and brought them resources, that she tried to empower them. She had them make decisions or she led them towards making decisions about what they wanted to do. She never forced anybody to do anything. I think she provided joy and laughter and music and theater and just a whole realm of experiences that they could choose from. I think she widened their world. I guess, maybe, you could call her a "teacher" for doing that. But, I think the difference was that they could make decisions about what they wanted to do and I think the best example of that was the Community Council.

Q: When, towards the end, Eleanor Roosevelt's plan for people in Scotts Run. Did your Mother encounter Eleanor?
BB: My Mom met Eleanor Roosevelt twice. She came in a long, black limousine and stepped out and Mom --

Q: Just out of film, we will pick it up


Q: Bettijane, tell me about your Mother's, your Mom's encounter with the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
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BB: This big, long, black limousine rolls down into Scotts Run and Eleanor Roosevelt steps out and my Mom was standing there with a children's wig on and a children's dress because she is having a party with her kids and they are all dressed-up like kids. So, here she is meeting the First Lady with some absurd outfit on. The second time, Eleanor Roosevelt went up to the door of one of the houses, or shacks, I guess we should call them, and my Mom had been there overnight helping a new Mother who had just had a baby. And, my Mom had on pajamas and she was scratching herself because she had bedbugs. And, she went to the door, in her pajamas, scratching herself, and there was Eleanor Roosevelt.
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But, I think that's important because when she met Eleanor Roosevelt she was doing her business with Scotts Run. She wasn't sitting in an office, shuffling papers; but, she was involving herself in the community and that how's she met her. I'm sure my Mom would have liked to have met, Eleanor Roosevelt under different circumstances, in her best dress and with gloves, but, now that I think about it; she met her doing it just the way she was.

Q: Did she have an opinion about the Government's arrival in Scotts Run?
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BB: I think that Mom was glad that the Roosevelt Administration had noticed Scotts Run. It had actually begun during the Hoover Administration. The Secretary at the White House had sent Mom a letter and said "we appreciate all the work you are doing out there." So, somehow the word had gotten to Washington, whether it was through the Christian Science Monitor or different Presbyterian magazines, or whatever. But, she was glad she came and, of course, out of that came Arthurdale and the other planned communities. But, I think Mom was always trying to bridge the gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Scotts Run was certainly a "have-not," and the "haves" had a lot to give to the "have-nots." And, even though Scotts Run was only nine miles away from Morgantown, it was a world of difference that many people were afraid to cross.

Q: Let's, a, completely change gears, if you can. That's an airplane, I've got to cut for that. I'll give you a cue to start your answer. All right.


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BB: The women of West Virginia today, I think, have a lot of problems that my Mom saw back during the Great Depression. I think there is still isolation, low self-esteem, people not finishing high school, dependency, domestic violence. Mostly, isolation. As President, one of the best things that I ever did was to go around the state and visit the Chapters. And, I found that getting out of Charleston and going into smaller communities was a whole difference. I listened to people who were afraid, feminists, who were NOW members, who were afraid to identify themselves as NOW members in communities who had moved in from other communities and were still told, after twenty and thirty years, that they were "outsiders." I think it's easier in Charleston where you have larger organizations coming together and supporting each other. But, it is a whole different world out there, and, every community has it's own character.

Q: Let me interrupt. What do you think are some of the strengths that Appalachian women, West Virginia women can draw on as a counterpart to their struggle? What are the strengths that women here have? Are there special strengths that land, family, tradition, community; are the things here to draw on them might not be in, tell me about them.
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BB: I think West Virginia women are very loyal. I think they are fighters. They have grown up alongside men who have been in the Labor Union struggle and they have seen that and they have been strengthened by it. The women out on the picket lines or organizing clubs like the Daughters of Mother Jones and empowering themselves. We talked to women during the Labor Union struggle who told us that it was the first time they had written letters or stood by picket lines, or written to Congressmen. I think the Labor Unions and the women's movement, I think we have learned things from each other. I think the Labor Unions, in a way, are more tolerant and somewhat supportive of us. They have marched with us in parades and, on the other hand, I think Labor Unions and the whole character that that's given to this State that makes us very feisty. So, even under extraordinary conditions of poverty, or whatever, that West Virginia women endure.

Q: How important is family in West Virginia?
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BB: Family is as important as watching those beautiful seasons come up on the mountains four times a year as the seasons change to the different colors. I think, sometimes, it keeps people here when they could go away. Or, they go away and they come back. But, I think, watching what has happened in this State and maybe being a part of it, somehow it all mixes in together and things happen. Organizations happen. Struggle happens and I think it makes us strong.

Q: Do you, when you are away, do you miss West Virginia? Hold on, for a second, OK? Just tell me, yes --
BB: No, I don't.