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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Helping striking coal miners in eastern Tennessee

Kester explains his support of coal miners in eastern Tennessee during the strike of 1934. Initially, Kester had primarily worked to relieve the suffering of striking miners and he organized Aid Day with his wife, Alice. Shortly thereafter, he worked to he worked to receive aid for the workers from the Tennessee Valley Authority. At the time, Kester was working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and had to resign because the Fellowship disagreed with the workers' form of direct action. Kester, however, had begun to believe that class struggle was a problem for everyone and he continued to work with the miners.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. 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

We had what we called Aid Day, when we would take clothes and food to theminers. People would send us clothing, etc. from all over the country and we'd take it and distribute it. Alice kept a meticulous record of everything she gave everybody. So the officers who sometimes thought because they were union officers, they ought to have prior consideration, but she (Alice) didn't think so. They were just another family in need, you know? She saw to it that everybody got their share. Whenever we wanted help, and we always needed help; it was quite a job distributing all the materials: food, canned food, and clothes, shoes, and we even got sets of false teeth, etc., students from Scarritt would help us.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You were distributing that throughout the South.
HOWARD KESTER:
Mostly in Eastern Tennessee, at Wilder, Davidson, and Twinton, three coal mining towns.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well in Wilder did you have a lot of trouble-that strike went on for a tremendously long time.
HOWARD KESTER:
A long . . . twenty some months, and the union President was killed, was shot, and they put a machine gun over his body so nobody could get to him, and he would identify his killer.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You eventually just had to move people out, right?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, some went to Cumberland Homestead. I spoke at a meeting at which the Chief Forester at TVA was present. I think the meeting was in Philadelphia, anyway, and he came to me later and said, "If I can get an appointment for you with Dr. Morgan . . . Arthur Morgan, TVA Chairman, will you tell your story to him?"
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Right?
HOWARD KESTER:
"Will you go up and talk to him and tell him what you've told this group." I said that by all means I would. So he arranged the meeting and I went up and talked to Dr. Morgan. After I told him the story of what was going on, the desperate need, he said, "Will you leave the room for a few minutes?" And I knew what he was going to do, he was going to call Washington and see if he could get some help. And he got it, and the man who selected the families is living over here in Black Mountain now, Dag Folger.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Dag Folger?
HOWARD KESTER:
F O L G E R.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was he with the resettlement?
HOWARD KESTER:
They were just beginning.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I see. This was one of their first efforts?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes. Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
The fellow with TVA, Arthur Morgan, was he just a very interested person that . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
No, no, Dr. Morgan was a first rate engineer, and he is the one responsible for building Lake Norris, for example, and the dams all up and down the Tennessee Valley . . . the river, and was a very perceptive person. He was President of Anitoch College before he went to T.V.A.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I see. That was after he left TVA?
HOWARD KESTER:
No, before, and then he went back.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Were the mines Wilder closed then after everyone was moved out?
HOWARD KESTER:
No, there were enough people left to dig the coal, but the wages were so low, had been cut, and cut, and cut and by the time they took out for the rent, the electricity, the shower, and other items, the poor folk had virtually nothing to live on. On the night that Barney Graham, who was President of the Union was killed, it was in the afternoon . . . Sunday afternoon, Alice and I spent the night with his wife and children, and the only light we had was a string that had been dipped into a Coca Cola bottle of kerosene.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
How did you first get involved in the strike?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, I knew the trouble the miners were in.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
With the Fellowship of Reconciliation?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, and got in trouble over it.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
That's when you broke with them, in 1934?
HOWARD KESTER:
That's right. The miners just simply refused to let me go out at night alone, and most of the time somebody was with me.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well had they come to you originally and asked . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
No, I just knew they were in trouble and needed help and went to them. At first they didn't know whether to accept me or not because I could have been a spy for the company or something equally as dangerous to their cause. Well, it didn't take them long. They accepted me, and I was one of them. This issue the matter of my being guarded by the miners while working in the FOR, Fellowship of Reconciliation came up over the extent to raising angry arguments . . . well there had not been anything like it. The miners guarded me. Of course, none of the FOR members had been in a situation where you could get your brains blown out.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
It is very easy to talk about non-violence when you were in a peaceful situation.
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, and then the whole question of the extent of one's participation in the class struggle came up, and I took the position that I think was the correct one. That whether you liked it or not, you were already involved in it because every time you bought a ton of coal or a loaf of bread, you were participating in the exploitation of the workers. And I said, "You are involved in it just as much as I am. You don't have anybody guarding you, like I do."
MARY FREDERICKSON:
So you resigned from their organization.
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, I resigned.