William West was born in 1936, in Pickens County, Alabama in a little town of Ethelsville, located in the Southern part of the state. His father worked in a saw mill. “Back then about the only jobs there were for blacks was either farming or working in the mill,” said West.
When he was in the fifth grade, his family moved to Mount Hope, Alabama. They had family in Mount Hope and William and his siblings attended school there for a year before transferring to Moulton High School. While attending school in Mount Hope, which was held in a church, they walked to and from school every day. “Walking was fun to me, when it snowed we always had fun with the other kids along the way. We played and had a good time. Our teacher was Mrs. Jackson. She never had any problems with me,” he laughed.
The house he grew up in was referred to as a refrigerator. “It was very cold, although we had heat. Especially when we went to bed it was so cold, when we could afford double blankets Mama put them on the bed and after that it was warmer. I always said that when I got grown I would never live in a cold house, and I’ve been fortunate not to have had to. But back then that was the best they could do.”
The family got electricity for lighting in 1954. “But there was still no electric heat, we heated with wood.”
“We lived in a three-room house. In the living room we had electric lamps and a fireplace, and in the kitchen we had a refrigerator,” he recalled. There was one bedroom for William and his nephew, and another bedroom for his sister and his mom.
Behind the house was an outhouse, both at home and at school, “That was just a way of life, it was embarrassing, but that’s what we had,” he said.
Rock Springs Church figured big in his life. “Mama always went to church, and was always on time.” He recalled. “I liked to stay out late on Saturday night but mama always made me get up. Rev. Byrd was always there when we got there and we did whatever we needed to do to help heat the building or whatever there was to be done.”
He often walked home from church with the other guys who attended Rock Springs Presbyterian Church. “We always had a good time, and after lunch we’d grab a ball and bat and play some ball.”
Growing up in Mount Hope is one of his best memories. His cousins, the Bushes and others always gathered together in nice weather and after church, talking and laughing and having a good time. “Mount Hope was a good place to grow up,” he said.
He got a job at Littrell Lumber Co. in a saw mill. His mother got him up at 5:30 a.m., way too early to drive 15 minutes to work, “I was always up and at work by 6:30, which was way before time to start work,” he recalled.
The family, like most families in the rural area of western Lawrence County grew what they ate and picked cotton for cash money. He also got a job mowing the postmaster, Mr. Wheeler’s, lawn for $3.00. “I thought I had some money, but then a lady hired me to heat up the Methodist church, breaking up coal and stoking the heater, she and paid me $15 a month, and then she hired me to mop and clean windows in her store in Moulton, I thought I was rich!” (The store was Clark-Freeman Department Store.)
After transferring to school in Moulton, they rode a bus. Going into the sixth grade he recalls the teachers were such special people. “They helped to make me into whatever there is good about me now,” he said. “One of them, Ms. Carrie Pettey, was always on my case, telling me to comb my hair, or pull my pants up, she never let up on me,” he laughed. “She and the others pointed me in the right direction.”
His coach, Walter Burns, was another big influence. “He always said that we had to play as a team, he taught us that if we wanted to win, it meant we learned the plays and played as a team. We did, and we had a good team my senior year.”
Another thing he learned from Coach Burns was something that has stuck with him the rest of his life, “He always said that the hardest person to discipline is yourself,” he recalled.
The Moulton Gophers won several games that year. West, standing about 5’8” in his stocking feet and weighing in at about 160, played several positions. But it was his last game that he remembers most. “There I was about to leave Moulton behind and what did I do? Fumbled the first ball of the game,” he said. “After that the team sort of lost heart. Russellville beat us that night.”
He graduated from Moulton High School in 1958, with a football scholarship under his belt and the realization that he was about to walk out into a world that he knew nothing about. “Although my teachers had prepared me academically, growing up in Mount Hope was very different than where I was going.”
One of the last things he did before he left was to burn his cotton sack. “I knew one thing for sure, I never wanted to pick cotton again,” he said.
His scholarship landed him at Payne College in Birmingham. Not too far away as far as miles go, but a world away from the cotton patches and fertile fields of home.
It was there that West received the encouragement he needed to excel in school. He played sports there, too. He says that his teachers were exemplary, always urging their students to do more, do better, be better. They stressed the vital importance of getting a higher education to their students and did everything possible to instill in them the ethics that give them a better life and to prepare them for the future.
Playing ball opened up a lot of opportunities for West. He traveled with the team to Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina and other destinations to play ball. “For a little boy from the cotton fields of Mount Hope, Alabama, the first of his family to graduate college, it was a big deal to me,” he said.
The world was changing. He had never been in any trouble in his life, but that was about to change. Although he would tell you that it was, to coin a phrase, good trouble, trouble for a cause greater than himself.
“It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “In Birmingham, we were right in the midst of things taking place. I wanted to get involved, and when one of Shuttleworth’s lieutenants came to campus to recruit volunteers, I went to a meeting and came back to the dorm and talked to some of the other guys there about what was about to happen.”
Nine other young men joined William West at the next meeting. “Basically, they just told us up front that we would be going to jail, and they taught us various techniques on how to protect ourselves and what to do when we got there, and that they would be coming to get us out,” he explained.
“They told us not to fight,” he recalled.
It wasn’t until they returned to the dorm that night that he began to realize the full weight of what was about to happen. “I wasn’t frightened for myself, but I did start to be afraid for the guys who had gone with me at my suggestion, I was afraid of something happening to one or more of them,” he said. “We all knew then that someone might not make it back.”
When the time came for them to do their part, they were sent in pairs to five different lunch counters around the city. William and a young man by the name of Robert Parker were sent to Woolworths. They were twenty years old at the time.
“We sat down at the lunch counter,” he recalled. “The waitress was real nervous and made no move to take our order. There was a man sitting next to me drinking a cup of coffee and I thought for a minute he was going to throw it on me, but he didn’t, he just sat there looking mean.”
The police arrived as predicted, in less than ten minutes, and they were handcuffed and whisked out of the store and into the paddywagon. “When we got to jail we were all put in the same cell. There was nothing funny about it, we were all very serious. Once you step over that line, you are never the same. People called us everything you can think of, acted so ugly and there was just no reason for it, we didn’t put up any resistance or talk ugly in any way to give them a reason for that.”
Another time the young men were put on buses, “That was the worst,” he said. “We went from the college to downtown and folks called us everything but a human being,” he said stoically. “No matter how they had tried to prepare us for this, there is no way to be ready for what happened.”
He left Birmingham before Eugene Bull Connor turned firehoses on children and women.
He went from Payne College in Birmingham to Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, where he graduated with a BA in social studies and a minor in psychology, in 1962.
That same year he married and moved to Cullpepper, Virginia, where his wife had a job. But another opportunity took them from there to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he worked for Kiser Aluminum. He lived there for almost fifty years, and might be there still had it not been for Hurricane Katrina. “A woman took me to New Orleans, and another one ran me out,” he said ironically of the monster hurricane which displaced thousands of people.
Before the hurricane, he loved New Orleans. “It was such a laid-back place,” West recalled. “There was always something good to eat, shrimp and gumbo, and I liked the way people gathered and had a good time.”
He met Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers and other musicians there, just coming and going,” There was always nice people everywhere down there,” he said.
But after the devastation that Katrina wrecked on the whole area, he decided it was time for a change.
He moved back to the place he knew best, Alabama. This time he settled in Decatur.
As he looks back over the time of the Civil Rights Movement, brought back to him recently by the events in Washington, D.C., he can see similarities. He stopped his role in the movement back then because his mother cried and asked him not to participate any more. “She had already lost one son and she said she didn’t think she could go through that again,” he recalled painfully. “I went back into another room in her house and cried, and promised her that I would stop participating. I hope no other mothers ever have to live through anything like that.”
According to West, things really changed between 1964 and 1970. “When I went to work for Kiser Aluminum, it was on the back end of integration,” he said. “Before that people wouldn’t drink out of the same water fountain, but when I went to work there people didn’t care what color a man was, as long as he did his job. People ate together, showered after work, and walked out together with no problems.”
“You can’t make a law to change a person’s heart,” he said philosophically. “That change has to come from the inside, that person has to want to change.”
“Now that I’m older, I always feel that there should be compromise,” he said.
“My children never knew that other side of life in a black community,” he said. “My two daughters went to a Catholic school and afterward to a girl’s school. When they were there it was mixed and they never had any problems, they got along exceptionally well.”
He has never talked to them about slavery because his parents didn’t talk to him about it. “My grandfather probably had some stories from his parents, but he never talked about it,” said West. “I’ve kept the history of our family for my children, but not as far back as slavery. I didn’t want them to hate, so I never taught them to feel that way.”
One of his daughters lives in Baton Rouge and the other lives with him in Decatur.
His sister, Annie Mae Nelson, still lives in Mount Hope. His cousins, Sarah Bush, Luella Gholston, Annie Lois Robinson, Fran Bush and her sisters, Jackie, and Bootsie, and their brother, Conley, live close by, along with other relatives in Mount Hope and Moulton. Occasionally he sees a few people who are still living from his graduation class. The last reunion they had, in ’07, included the whole school, not just his graduating class. “Our class has dwindled down to three girls and two boys,” he said. It was nice to see all of them together again and he loves sitting down with relatives and friends and reminiscing about growing up in Mount Hope. “Home to me is still Mount Hope,” he laughed. “My roots are here.”
“I lived in New Orleans a long time but when Katrina hit we lost everything,” he said sadly. “We walked away with the clothes on our backs, and our lives, and what could be more valuable than that?” he asked.
He enjoys going to church and says that the lessons his mama pushed into his head all those years ago still stand him in good stead. “If you do the right thing it always comes back to you,” he said. “If you do the wrong thing that comes back, too.”