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Transcript of interview with Huey Perry, May 3, 1993, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project

WEST VIRGINIA HISTORY PROJECT, MAY 3rd, AND WE ARE DOING THE HUEY PERRY INTERVIEW. THIS IS A CONTINUATION OF SOUND ROLL 272 RIGHT AFTER YESTERDAY'S ROOM TONE [The announcer in error; it is NOT sound roll 272, rather camera roll 272 and sound roll 112 is correct].

Q: Huey let's go back almost 30 years. It's 1965 and tell me what was in your mind when you got a phone call saying that you were the Director of the Mingo County EOC.
JJHC 0036
HP: Well, I was very excited. I didn't know for sure that I was going to get the job because I knew pretty much how jobs were decided back in those days, and I was not from a real strong active political family. And, in fact, my father was a Republican and so, I really didn't think I'd get the job, but I did and I was terribly excited about it because I had been teaching school at the local high school for seven years and there was not too many opportunities back there to do other things other than teach. And so, this was a whole new challenge to me and I don't think I slept for about two days.

Q: In a real general sense, what did you try to do?
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HP: Well, in the beginning, what we attempted to do and what we did do was to talk with the poor people up the creeks and the hollows and to organize them into what we called "Community Action Groups." That became a word that was known all across the country -- "Community Action Groups" and Mingo County was the first poverty agency to coin that phrase, "Community Action Group." And so, we organized the poor, 'cause we felt that if we were going to accomplish anything, they had to be involved and we were following the Economic Opportunity Act itself and it spoke in the area of involving the poor to the maximum extent feasible, so that they could have a say-so in how the programs were run and how their lives were run and make decisions, for the first time.

Q: What were the conditions of the people in Mingo and southern West Virginia in early Sixties?
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HP: In the early 60's, it was absolutely terrible. The mines had been closed, unemployment was in the high teens, 50% of the houses were dilapidated, the, there was virtuously any health services at all available to the people. Everything associated with poverty, that you can imagine, existed in Mingo County and also many of the southern coal field counties at that time. People had left their homes going into the city to try and find work. Many had gone to Detroit and Columbus working in the automobile industry. There was a feeling of hopelessness, despair. It was very difficult.

Q: Why don't you tell me that, again? I think you stumbled that whole point?
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HP: There was a..There was a feeling of despair. There was no hope for the future. People were totally dependent on welfare. There was just no hope at all for advancement. That's what we found when we began the poverty program. It was an attitudinal problem. The local politicians had controlled the system for so many years. They controlled the welfare system, the Board of Education, everything was political.

Q: OK. Let's stop there. We just ran out of film. That was a short roll of film. That was a five minute roll.


Q: Huey, pick up that train of thought. In addition to sort of a spiritual despair. A spiritual depression down there and there was this factor of political control. Tell me about that.
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HP: There was total political control over everything and it was a pattern that evolved and developed over a number of years where the local politicians felt that they had to control every aspect of the community and every aspect of people's lives. And, of course, this was an easy system for them 'cause it perpetuated them into office and kept them into office and so, even the welfare recipients, first would go to the county politicians to get themselves placed on the welfare roles. So, they felt that they had to do that first, although they qualified for the welfare system. They would use that passageway into it, and, of course, this pleased the politicians because they knew they had a voter. As long as they could control this person and make them think that they controlled them, then they were subservient to that system.
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And, so there was a fear, when we talked about change, there was a fear that came over the people, initially. Well, you know, if we oppose the local politicians and try to bring institutional change or political reform, we will loose our welfare. And, that was one of the things that, in the beginnings of community organizing, that we were up against. But, after we did a lot of "one on one" talking and explained to people that this is the system of slavery and of bondage, many of them would become angry and say "you're right, it's time we stand up for ourselves." And, this was what the poverty program attempted to do, in the very beginning, was to organize the people so that they could speak for themselves rather than being spoken for.

Q: Tell me about the excitement that you had in discovering that this untapped desire on the part of these poor people to take control of their lives.
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HP: Sure, well, I was terribly, terribly excited, to say the least about what was happening in the movement because, like everyone else in southern West Virginia, I'd come up with the idea that you had to, that poor people were poor because they were lazy. They didn't want to work. They were drunkards. They were useless to society. So, this was a large segment of our county. That meant that almost half of the population were lazy and worthless because that's about how many people were in poverty. And, so, it was these attitudes that we had to overcome. And I really didn't know what to expect, in the beginning, because I had heard that myself. But, once they were organized and once they began to talk about the issues that affected them, once they began to identify their problems, and they had someone that they could talk to and they could talk to each other.
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This process was amazing. It was an educational process, not only for me, but for the people down there. And, we began to formulate strategies and plans as to how we could move this community from its poverty-ridden state into a state where people could exist with some comfort and some freedom from that corrupt political system that existed in the coal fields.

Q: Why do you think this sense of powerlessness had become so set-in Mingo County and southern West Virginia?
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HP: Well, I think it's been a learned process down through the years, because the real thing in southern West Virginia was "how do you survive?". And, of course, if there are no jobs to, in the private sector, then they would turn to the government sector and there was very little hope there. There was the Board of Education jobs which were, also, dominated by the political system. And, then they created some make-shift work jobs in the early '60's to put unemployed fathers to work, cutting weeds on the road; and of course, they were criticized because, and humiliated to a certain extent, because the other people said "can you believe he's out cutting weeds." Well, there was no work for people to do and people didn't understand that.

Q: Let's go back a little earlier, though. Tell me how it, that the sense of "lack of control" really began once the ownership of the land left their hands.
HP: Right. Well, what happened in those counties is, I have ancestors that helped settle that area there. Maybe I can relate to you the story of my own great-grandfather who had settled on about 10,000 acres.

Q: Just start it fresh, just say "my grandfather."
HP: My grandfather had, one of the early pioneers in the area, had settled on about 10,000 acres of prime land and that contained enormous wealth in minerals and coal and gas, and he sold the land.

Q: Let's just stop for a second. Cut. Sorry. We have a police siren. What's that footage? Seven or eight minutes. OK.


Q: Huey, tell me about your ancestor Larkin Kline.
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HP: Well, my great grandfather, Larkin, Larkin Kline made one of the biggest transactions of his life one afternoon in the early 1900's. He managed to sell the mineral rights, all the gas and the coal, to about a 10,000 acre tract of land that he had settled early and laid claim to for about $250.00. And, he came home and told his wife what a great deal he had made, that he had managed to get $250.00 for this coal and this gas that's under the ground. So, they had a celebration, naturally. But, little did they know that in 1974, I believe it was, that that same tract of mineral land sold for nearly $500 million dollars. So, this happened, repeatedly, throughout the coal fields and, I think, once the coal companies began to move into the area and began to ravage the land and that it developed a system of politics that may be somewhat unique to the coal fields.
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Although I'm sure it exists in other parts of the country. But, it was a system that made the people dependent upon the political system for their very survival. In many ways, the same way that the coal operators made the coal miners dependent upon the coal mine for their survival. So, once the coal mines declined in the '50's and there was real depression as far as the coal economy in the '50's, people moved out of the area. Then, there was a transfer of a greater dependency by the people upon to the local politicians for survival. Although, hundreds and hundreds of people moved out of the area, there were others still left there.

Q: Huey, as you got rolling with this, you can feel free to use your hands up here. As you got rolling with your community action program you started to have some really successes. Tell me how you came to look upon it as a movement, not just a bunch of government programs.
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HP: Our first budget, for the first year, consisted of $18,000, and the neighboring county, McDowell, had already received a million dollars for, basically, canned programs. We wanted to approach it a little different, because we felt that we really had to get down to the basic causes of poverty, and to give the people an opportunity to identify the issues that affected their life, daily. And so with these study groups and so forth, we began to really take a look at the political system and how it worked. And, and and organized, all over the county, eighteen different community action groups that became a focal point for these kinds of discussions. Not only were they discussing the issues that affected them in the county, at the same time they were beginning to put together various kinds of programs that were being funded by the poverty program.
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And, for the first time in their lives these were job situations that were created outside of the local political structure and outside of the state government, even the governor of the state had no say so in the type of programs that were being funded and developed by the poor.

Q: Who were these poor?
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HP: They were, many of them were former coal miners who become unemployed. Most of them were able-bodied people that would work if they had an opportunity, who wanted to work, who wanted to do something with their lives. Most of them were descendants of the early pioneer settlers. Most of the people in those counties are born and raised there. Many of them, obviously, moved into the area.

Q: Stop here. We just ran out of film. 10 minutes


Q: Huey, continue telling me about the kinds of people that came and started working in your community action groups.
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HP: OK. The kind of people that we were organizing were ex-coal miners, people who had become unemployed, housewives; in fact, I think the women probably outnumbered the men as far as the active participants in the community groups. They became a very strong vocal point. There was less and less fear of the politicians as the program grew and as people began to become dependent upon one another rather than on the system. And so about half way through the poverty program, you know it lasted as far as I'm concerned about six years, about the third year, people began to really take a close look at how elections were conducted in the county and who controlled the elections and they felt that this had to be changed if progress was going to be made and if they were really going to gain control of their lives.
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And so Mingo, along with it's neighboring county of Logan, had a reputation of being one of the crookedest political counties in the whole United States. For example, in Mingo County there was 30,000 people registered to vote. This, almost, was as much as the population which was 39,000. There should have been only about 19,000 eligible voters in the state. So, they created this Fair Election Committee to purge the illicit voters from the registration books and so, it required the County Clerk to send a registered letter to each of the voters and so, they began to identify hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of voters who were ineligible or who had died and had voted in the last election.
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And so the County Clerk ran out of his budget money for stamps in a very short while and was complaining to the County Commission that he needed more money. It all ended up with over 5,000 names being purged from the registration roles and in the previous presidential election in the '60's more than 30% of the votes that were cast were cast as "absentee votes" in that county. So, this began to be a threat to the local politicians because did it mean that there was not going to be this abundant source here that they could rely on, you know, to steal elections. And, so they also to prove the point that dead people were voting, they found 21 people who had died two or three years before the last election who had voted in that election from the grave.

Q: Tell me, in sort of a listing way, tell me all the things, all the parts of life that the political machine in Mingo County ran.
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HP: Well, the political machine in the county controlled the teacher's jobs; they controlled the welfare recipients who would get on welfare; they made those decisions. They had control, naturally, of all the state road jobs, the liquor store clerks. In fact, they were the largest employer-controlee of any other aspect of our economy. They, the politicians, were the economy. And so it was not like a free market system as you experienced it in other parts of the country, it was serfdom, it was a "Little Kingdom" and the people were the subjects. There was no democracy in Mingo County. And, all the politicians and every governor that's ever been elected in the state of West Virginia knew how this political system worked in the coal fields. And, there was about eighteen counties that actually determined who the governor was gonna be and if they could control the political bosses in these counties, they can control the state politics. And, that's what they did so many, many years.

Q: At some point your radical community action group runs up against this entranced political machine and that and you, there's conflict.
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HP: Sure, there the the number of people participating in the community action groups grew and grew and there was, probably, more than 4,000 people participating actively. That was a fairly large vocal organization and it scared the politicians, not only in Mingo County, but they began to make calls to their friends in DC. and so forth. And, along with the mayors in the larger cities, who also felt threatened, there was federal legislation passed that put the control of the poverty agencies back in the hands of the big city mayors and of the local county courts and their situation, county commissioners. And, so there this was really disappointing to the people; they had worked so hard to gain a certain amount of independence, and they now saw that this was a threat of taking that away, again and of putting the system back like it like it once was.
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And so they rebelled against the decision and, for example, back in the county seat of Williamson one Saturday afternoon while the court was inside and making a decision as to how they were going to run the poverty agency, all the community action people descended upon the town and they were outside trying to get meetings with the county commission, trying to plead with them to leave the program alone. And, I think, the thing that summed it up well was when a community leader, with his bull horn, spoke to the county commission. To paraphrase him he says; "Over in old England, it they didn't like you, if the King didn't like you, they would cut off your head." He says, "Over here, if they don't like you they'll cut off your project." This was what was happening.

Q: Tell me though that, about your assessment about the fact that this work, though it was eventually swept back into the system, did, sorta, over the long run, did sorta break the hold of the system?
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HP: Well, I think the poverty program, if we assess the results some twenty-five years later, I guess, I think the process of people educating themselves to the system, of being able to have contact, for the first time with the federal government agencies, I think the whole process has made things more democratic, throughout southern West Virginia and, perhaps, other rural areas of the country. But, as far as the programs that were left almost any kind of an organization could manage those programs. Now, they became institutionalized and less effective than they were during the '60's. But, for example, it was the it was the poverty program that, that spear-headed and helped to create the movement for the Black Lung program that has been essential to all the disabled coal miners throughout the state. One of the first meetings ever held was held on Gilbert Creek in a church house where the the retired miners from Wyoming County and Mingo County met.
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That was sort of the birth of the actual movement. Although there had been discussions, obviously, throughout the community groups. This was where it really had originated. And, so that is a positive benefit; maybe the Black Lung movement would have happened later on, but this certainly speeded-up the process and brought benefits to the many disabled widows and miners throughout the state. The educational process, certainly, was improved. The Head Start Program, as I had mentioned, the first full-day rule Head Start Program began in Mingo County. And, although it was rejected by the local Boards of Education throughout the state, ah, in the beginning, once it proved itself and once they recognized that these kids entered the school system, that they entered with a better attitude, with self-esteem, they began to see it as a worthwhile program. And we have recognized that that is a program that had lasting effect and still is around today.

Q: Let me interrupt.
HP: Let me get just a sip of water.

Q: Sure. What is your opinion about the impression that other Americans have about West Virginia, and, in particular, southern West Virginia?
HP: Sure. The rest of the country, in the '60's, --


HP: Hold it for just a second; I forgot where we were at.

Q: I'll ask the questions. ... are we still rolling?


Q: Huey, this attention to Appalachia in the 60's, was it creating an image of West Virginians ? Tell me about that and tell me what you were trying to do about it?
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HP: We were really trying to expose West Virginia for what we thought it was and how we saw it to the rest of the nation, and in order to eliminate problems, we first had to admit there were problems and so one of the things that happened was when we would have an outside news crew come in from CBS or NBC, certainly, we did not try to hide the poverty that was there, we would take them to the poverty as it really existed, and this included the shacks, the garbage, everything that was bad about Appalachia; it was certainly exposed during those times and there was criticism from a lot of sources that "we are tearing West Virginia's image down" but this was West Virginia.
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This was a large segment of West Virginia and we felt that it was not to be hidden, but to be shown, so that the people and so that the government at the federal level could respond to these kinds of problems. There was a lack of highways; there was lack of every opportunity; so if the outhouses and all the garbage and all the shacks showed up on the national television screen, then we felt that was helpful to the state and not harmful to the state.

Q: Tell me, just in the way that you listed how the political machine controlled, tell me about the types of things that your project did, that your program did? Start in a listing manner, what kind of activity did you undertake?
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HP: One of the first things that the community groups wanted to do was to do something about their own housing conditions and Mingo was really littered with empty shacks and so we created a program that involved about 100 unemployed fathers. We hired two or three experienced carpenters. We got a couple of trucks and some miner equipment and they began to remove the shacks and to salvage the lumber from those shacks and each community group would take applications from people in the creeks and the hollows that needed home improvement done, whether it was a room added or a bathroom put in their house for the first time, they would take this material, refurbish the material, and repair people's homes with it.
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Now this appeared to be minor in comparison to what the problem was, but they actually removed hundreds of hundreds of unsightly shacks throughout the county, cleaned up the image of the county, and at the same time they repaired hundreds and hundreds of homes. Now eventually there became a federal program that was suited for this type of purpose. I think they call it the Weatherization Program today, but this was the very infancy of those housing programs.

Q: Tell me about your creation of Head Start and how it became ?
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HP: The other thing that we began to talk about in the beginning was the fact that we had all the kids that had health problems. They were running around in the front yard, playing in the creeks, wearing a diaper, so people began to talk about what we could do and we really started a pre-school program in Mingo. It was the first full day pre-school program run by welfare mothers, run by people who were in poverty. They built community centers whether it was repairing a one room school that had been abandoned or whether it was re modeling a house making it into a center, but 22 of these centers were built across the county. And the first teachers were hired from the community groups and they were all welfare mothers that had a couple of weeks training.

Q: Just tell me now how that was picked up nationally?
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HP: Once we began the program in Mingo county, and once the successes of this pre-school, once the successes became known, other counties then picked up on what is now known as the Head Start Program. That was a program that was really rejected by the Boards of Educations in the southern counties in the beginning, but once they were able to see its benefits, they began to support it and the state itself, the state educational systems began to develop curriculum for early childhood development programs. And it now as we know it as part of the institution of education in the state.

Q: Would you just tell me the sentence that you told me before which is a nice closing sentence that "our program became a model for the national Head Start."
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HP: The program in Mingo county, that we developed, became the model of Head Start programs throughout the rest of the nation.

Q: You described already the sort of legal institutional reaction of the machine to your programs, tell me more about the emotional side of that, that people were labeled communists, that there was reaction, was there violence, what kind of ugliness did that reaction take?
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HP: The program by many people was misunderstood. What we were attempting to do, we had a very simple, basic goals and that was to allow people the opportunity themselves and to improve their community and to get themselves off the welfare rolls. Today, we see that as a very conservative approach because the welfare system in those days was evil; I still think it's an evil system today; it needs to be changed so that people can have some control over their lives, rather than being cast into this kind of a system. Let's break.

Q: Let's cut.


Q: Just start with what we are doing is actual conservative, to give people power, but it was perceived differently.
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HP: What we were attempting to do was to give people control over their own lives. Now the politicians perceived this as being very radical, especially those politicians at the local level and the state level, and so the image was totally distorted and they did a great job in making people think that it was totally a radical movement, rather than a very conservative movement to get people off welfare and into jobs and taking control of their lives. We felt that that was what this whole country was about. And so here we had the political force opposed to that, which eventually led to the demise of the poverty program.

Q: What did they do?
HP: The poverty program --

Q: Not institutionally... what kind of ugly things did they do?
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HP: The poverty program itself was a coalition of the civil rights movement, of the anti-Vietnam movement and we can't lose sight of those national movements were happening, and we were a part of that. And so that contributed to the fact that we must be radicals; we must be communists. For example, we had a busload of people who was joining the March on Washington, the poor people's camp that was set up by Dr. Martin Luther King and we had a busload of people going to that. Well, the day they left, a carload of FBI agents pulled up and photographed everyone that got on bus and took their names, and so there began to be this interference from the federal level that we must be communists and many of our people were called communists.
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This was a common thing to do in those days. If someone was different, if someone advocated change, you were a communist. I was called a communist. People who came into the county from the outside, the VISTA workers and the Appalachian volunteers, many of them were labeled as communists.

Q: Tell me about one of those VISTA volunteers, Jay Rockefeller?
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HP: Well, yes I remember the first time I met Jay Rockefeller, we were having a community meeting at a place called Nusome Ridge and Jay came to that outing and he had come to West Virginia as a VISTA worker and was working near Charleston's in Kanawha County, but Jay was also traveling around the state to the various counties getting himself acquainted with what was going on and really taking a look at West Virginia for the first time.

Q: Is there any more to the story?
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HP: Well, certainly he was suspect in the beginning; it was hard for us to conceive. People from West Virginia, it was hard for us to conceive why he was here.

Q: Let's stop right there.


Q: Huey, tell me why was, how it was so incongruous to have Jay Rockefeller, a Rockefeller as a VISTA worker?
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HP: Well we certainly were surprised, especially the first time I saw Jay at one of our community meetings at Mingo county, and needless to say everyone was really suspect about a Rockefeller out here with the poor folks. It just didn't make much sense. Here one of the richest families in the country and certainly one of the best known rich families in the country and here was young Jay down in Mingo traipsing up the hollows and the creeks talking with the people and so -- I know one of the things I asked Jay when I first met him, I said are you going to run for governor some day? Jay grinned.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the people in southern West Virginia. Tell me about how their religious beliefs and their lack of power combined?
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HP: One of the unfortunate things about the people, some of the people, I think it's a minority, the people in southern West Virginia that many of them are very Fundamentalists when it comes to religion. And they have adopted this fatalistic attitude that anything bad that happens, it's the Lord's will. And if they're under bondage to the political system, it has to be the Lord's will or if an infant dies unnecessarily, it was the Lord's will. This was a way of coping with the many, many tragedies that they had. It made it also difficult because some of the Fundamentalist preachers in the county were quoting scriptures that it's easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those were attitudes that were beginning to be or had been set in people's minds over the ages. And so it made it difficult sometimes to get them to see beyond their religious upbringing that it doesn't necessarily have to be that way and it doesn't necessarily have to be the Lord's will that people live in poverty and the kinds of conditions that prevailed in those days.

Q: Taking the long view now, going out of that moment, what do you think the lessons of your experience in southern West Virginia during the War on Poverty are? What are the long term lessons?
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HP: I think as we look at conditions today, and make comparisons, we have seen in the last ten, fifteen years a real setback in the number of people in the country that are in poverty conditions. There was a lot of progress made in the Sixties, and I think we have to give credit to the poverty program for diminishing the number of people from the poverty roles but we seen in the Eighties that it came back, primarily because housing programs were eliminated, social programs were eliminated or cut back and so there was a rise in the poverty levels. I'm sure the same thing is true today in Mingo county, not as much so as it was in the Sixties, but I'm sure there is a rise in the poverty figures.

Q: What do you see as the future for southern West Virginia?
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HP: I'm very concerned about not only southern West Virginia, but all of West Virginia. We are still lacking the resources to really make this state what it could be, in addition to resources we really lack the courage to make the kinds of changes in the state that would bring about prosperity. We're one of the richest states in the country, as far as natural resources -- timber, coal, gas, we have it. Unfortunately, it is still owned by absentee landowners who control it. There is no leadership in the state to create any innovations. Things that are different; experiments in economics and social activities that might really create a change, no one is willing to run that risk politically. And until we have someone or a group of people who decide to really change things, we're going to be hurting in this state.

Q: What's your own attachment to West Virginia?
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HP: I guess once you're born and raised in this state, you feel such an attachment to it that no other place exists other than West Virginia. I've been here all my life; I have no desire to leave it, although out there were better places to live perhaps. You develop a love of the land, especially when all your relatives are born here, raised here, die here. You just sort of feel part of the earth here.

Q: What strengths does this state have to draw on as it tries to become something else?
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HP: I think the state has to pretty much change the way it does business. For example, when we have a problem today, a monetary problem, we tend to look for a tax, rather than a solution and it's obvious in a poor state, like West Virginia is, its resources is going to be drained to the point where it's going to be impossible to continue with basic services. The educational system is in very great trouble; it seems that year after year you ask the people for more money; that money is not going to stretched any further I don't think. So it's time we looked to develop new industries, new ways of doing things. For example, look at McDowell county today. It was a booming coal county with a population of about ninety thousand people at one time. McDowell is one of those counties that most of the coal has been mined out and it's not economically feasible now to go in and mine the coal and so we see what is happening in that county.
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It is terrible conditions. High unemployment, people have left, people are continuing to get out, and this may be the beginning to what is going to eventually happen in all of southern West Virginia. Now if we wait till the year of 2010 to try to correct that problem, to try to do something for that part of the state, then we've waited too late. Maybe we've already waited too late, but we need to begin to look at what is happening, and what is going to happen once the coal is not needed.

Q: How important do you think family and community are going to be to the creation to a new West Virginia in the future?
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HP: Well, I think certainly there are pros and cons about the close family clans that we have which still exist in West Virginia. But at the same time I think there's more openness as far as some new ideas and what is happening in the rest of the world. I think people are more aware; I think we just need to have the courage to sit down and say we've really got to change the way we're operating this state. If you look at our neighboring states --

Q: That's a little bit off -- ROOM TONE FOR PERRY INTERVIEW
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