When Elsie Ripley Clapp agreed to leave her cushy community school post in Jefferson County Kentucky and move her work to FDR’s Arthurdale, West Virginia New Deal project, this is what she faced.

Coal Miners Scotts Run, WVA
Coal Miner”Housing” Scotts Run, WVA
Scotts Run, WVA Industrially Stranded Coal Mining Family

The NMU, National Miners Union, was organizing all over the place. Our federal government honchos feared a “commie insurrection”, and with good reason given the living conditions, so the combined idea of a subsistence homestead and a community school was born.

Elsie Ripley Clapp left the luxury of the Ballard Memorial School and parachuted directly into an economic cauldron of greed, labor abuse, human neglect and starvation.

There are many good things to report about the community school developed in Kentucky but later for that. Because nothing had prepared Clapp and her team for what they encountered in WVA. The mine owners disappeared once there was no profit to be made. And left behind miner families in shacks with no food, fuel, light, water or hope. The NMU was the only organization with a presence and a platform.

Everyone could have decided just to allow the NMU’s analysis to dominate. Theirs was not so much an act of ideology or propaganda, since blind, deaf and dumb Helen Keller could have readily figured out that industrial capitalism was not working for anyone in Scotts Run.

The miners required no outside agitators because they were experiencing firsthand what transpires once the Fat Cats have cashed out. Those miners’ fury contained a transformative energy that was alternately retaliatory and relentless.

Elsie Clapp was about to try creating a community school where there was no community. Maybe where no semblance of community was even possible. Everyone she encountered was on their last leg and fresh out of hope.

Scotts Run conditions are nothing new to educators who work in Title I schools. Settlements of people where gainful employment is cancelled, exported or excluded by a prevailing paradigm of greed, do tend to go hungry, get violent, self medicate and establish bootleg economies. It is NOT Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. But it is a politically criminal construct, devoid of conscious and with a bad habit of blaming the victim. The boom had gone bust.

The about-to-be community school was only one of many ”stars” in a constellation of federal agencies suddenly vying for funding, visibility, control and prominence. It was Presidential Power Politics from the git-go and it was a huge pain in the neck for Elsie Ripley Clapp.

The Great Depression was no Shock Doctrine Surprise Disaster. In fact Herbert Hoover and his cohorts had been watching it unfold like a slow moving slasher movie. Spectators and Instigators combined, the federal government did nothing until revolution was at their doorstep. It was then that Hoover put Texan Jesse Jones and the RFC into action. A White House Conference on Child Welfare was convened and suddenly, the leftover WWI funds from feeding starving Belgian and French children were unearthed. That money was given to Clarence Pickett and the American Friends Service Committee of Philadelphia. Humanitarian relief became a good idea and an immediate, hot political potato.

Elsie Clapp rode into the devastated West Virginia mining camps on the coattails of Eleanor Roosevelt and the newly-elected FDR. Not the most auspicious moon under which to launch a subsistence homestead or a community school. Chaos reigned supreme and so did critics. By the summer of 1933 the NRA/National Recovery Act was funded and looking to relocate displaced and disgusted populations cramped and crowded into industrial centers where righteous insurrection was a certainty. John Dewey could not protect her here. Nor could waxing philosophically on the virtues of democracy. If they/she wanted a community school, it would require a seasoned educator with the skill set of a roadhouse bouncer.