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Don West


Poet and political activist Donald L. West (June 6, 1906-September 29, 1992) was also a preacher, labor organizer, and educator. Born in the mountains of North Georgia, West came to West Virginia in 1965, along with his wife, Connie, to establish the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem, Summers County. West stressed the importance of respecting mountain heritage and of learning history. He wrote and spoke often against the ‘‘hillbilly’’ stereotype. A political radical, he was critical of the American economic system, which he felt contributed to Appalachia’s poverty. Many people interested in mountain history, politics, and culture visited the 400-acre Appalachian South Folklife Center and were influenced by West’s ideas. In the summers West conducted camps for low-income youth and an annual mountain music festival.

West’s rural roots were deep and never forgotten. He wrote poetry that reflected his mountain background and his left-wing politics. He attended Lincoln Memorial University in the same class with Appalachian novelists Jesse Stuart and James Still, and received a divinity degree from Vanderbilt University where he was influenced by Social Gospel teachings. Studying in Denmark for a year, West discovered the Danish Folk School Movement, which also had a strong influence on him. He was a cofounder of the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee, which was attended by many activists, including Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. In the 1950s, West was a non-cooperating witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

His best-known books include O Mountaineers: A Collection of Poems (1974) and In a Land of Plenty: A Don West Reader (1982). West retired from the Folklife Center in the late 1980s and lived at Cabin Creek, Kanawha County, until his death.

Written by Yvonne Farley


  1. West, Don. In a Land of Plenty: A Don West Reader. Minneapolis: West End Press, 1982.

  2. Biggers, Jeff. The Fugitive of Southern Appalachian Literature: Reconsidering the Poetry of Don West. Journal of Appalachian Studies, (Spring 2000).

  3. Whitehead, Fred. "Don West," in Mario Jo Buhle, et al., eds, Encyclopedia of the American Left. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.