michelle obama in missouri
Michelle Obama with a supporter, Kansas City, Missouri
Photo: Michael Bersin

Newly elected President Obama and his soon-to-be First Lady, Michelle, will be moving into the White House in a few days. He will be taking over as Commander in Chief in the midst of an economic dilemma not seen in more than seventy-five years, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President. FDR took office in the depth of the Great Depression, 1933. He uttered his famous saying,”We have nothing to fear but fear itself” — still a favorite of politicians, military leaders and movie directors — in his inaugural address, an attempt to calm the storm and give hope to the homeless, the starving, the unemployed, the farmers who were losing their farms, and stock holders of busted banks.

FDR knew desperate times called for desperate measures. During his now famous, “first hundred days” FDR implemented work programs and social projects that put this nation on the road to recovery, calling the entire package “The New Deal.”

If terms like “public works” and “social programs” sound familiar, that may be because projects that President Elect Obama has proposed are similar to what FDR threw on the table back in the 1930s. Obama’s plan has even been referred to as another “New Deal.”

During one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history, FDR’s needed all the help he could get to turn things around. Most historians believe that his effectiveness in serving the people doubled in strength through the help of his wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt
Image: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story

What can we expect from Michelle Obama? How will she define her own role in the White House during these tough economic times — as wife, lawyer, mother, humanitarian? We don’t yet know. There are so many roles and role models for First Lady. My favorite is Eleanor Roosevelt. She didn’t care to get her hands dirty to soothe and relieve the pain and suffering of the people during the Great Depression. One extraordinary example took place in the coalfields of West Virginia by way of Scotts Run Coal Camps. In 1933 as an immediate and drastic measure to relieve starvation of coalminers and their families, Mrs. Roosevelt developed the first planned rural community.

Scotts Run in Monongalia County, northwest of Morgantown, West Virginia, changed drastically in the early 1920s when it was discovered that the farmers’ cows and horses were grazing on land covering a layer of coal called the “most valuable mineral deposit in the world” ““ the eastern outcrop of the Pittsburgh seam. Capitalists stormed the hollow operating as many as 60 different coal companies in the narrow 5-mile hollow during the 15 year boom to bust period, from 1917 to 1932. In 1921, the peak of this boom, 4.4 million tons of coal was shipped out of Scotts Run Hollow. As many as 37 mines operated by 33 different companies were operating at the same time.

The local labor market could not support the demand for workers so miners were imported. Foreign-born miners were imported; Austrian, Bohemian, Canadian, Croatian, English, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian, Polish, Rumanian, Russian, Scottish, Serbian, Slovak and Ukrainian made up 60% of the population on Scotts Run, the majority non-English speaking. The remaining 40% were equally divided, native Whites and Blacks miners from Alabama. This mix of ethnicities, races and cultures was held together by one thin thread ““ coalmining.

Even though cycles of boom and bust are common in the coal industry, what happened at Scotts Run will never be forgotten. World War I ended, Union disputes were taking a toll, the demand for coal decreased significantly, and coal prices plummeted. Coal operators in Scotts Run could see the writing on the wall ““ the boom was over. Even before each mine along the hollow closed, wage cuts led to poor living conditions and malnutrition. Miners and their families slumped into irreversible poverty. Prosperous coal operators pulled out, leaving communities stranded. No provisions were made to help these people when they were no longer needed to mine coal in Scotts Hollow. Even though the outside world was accessible to this community, there were no jobs for imported miners. The workers and their families were confronted with no jobs, no money, health problems, and sub-standard education.

The county’s social agencies nearly went bankrupt trying to provide assistance but it wasn’t enough; the problems were too complex and too many. Churches sent in missionaries to offer spiritual guidance and teach life-skills classes. Mary Behner, a young Presbyterian missionary, kept a daily journal while serving the people of Scotts Run. She wrote about the deplorable conditions, asking, “I wonder whom God will hold responsible?”

Lorena Hickok, a Quaker and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt’s intimate friend, was assigned to inspect the Appalachian coalfields in 1933. Hickok reported to the First Lady that Scotts Run was the worst place she had seen. She wrote that the housing “most Americans would not have considered fit for pigs.” Mrs. Roosevelt wasted no time in traveling to the area; that was in August of 1933. She visited with the impoverished miners and their families.

Arthurdale vaccum factory

Working at the vacuum cleaner factory in Arthurdale, West Virginia, c. 1944
Photo: Ben Shahn, via Library of Congress/American Memory

Within two weeks of her visit to Scotts Run, First Lady Eleanor created the first New Deal Planned Community to relocate starving, out of work, coal miners from Scotts Run. The community was named Arthurdale.

Approximately 1200 acres was purchased in rural Preston County, West Virginia. Residents were selected, homes were built and community buildings constructed including a school complex. Government employees were assigned to jobs as teachers, physicians, surveyors, engineers, secretaries, and other roles. The coal miners became homesteaders. They were allotted acreage for farming. Jobs became available as workers were needed to build new homes, administration buildings, gas stations, co-op stores, a community center and the educational complex. Other employment was found for displaced miners in barber shops, in the post office, at the school and for businesses brought in to the area by the new planned community.

In 1947 the government liquidated its holdings in Arthurdale, selling out to private ownership.

Recently, I asked a friend the difference between a Recession and a Depression. “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job,” said my friend, “Depression is when you lose your job.”

The latest numbers, released January 9, 2009, show the U.S. unemployment rate around 7.2%. As many as 524,000 workers lost jobs in the month of December. More job losses promised. By my friend’s standards, you may be living in a Recession today, Depression tomorrow.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wasted no time responding to a stranded community of coalminers in West Virginia with a plan of action. She developed the first planned rural community, where starving miners and their families could survive as productive human beings. To our new First Lady: in these times, Eleanor Roosevelt might be a good role model and “New Arthurdale” a project for the new administration.

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