It’s human nature to remember the good times and forget the bad ones. Even really difficult parts of our lives become good stories later. We survived them after all, so why not celebrate that fact.
I recently completed the first phase of the FestivALL Oral History Project, collecting personal stories from Charleston area residents. Over five days I recorded interviews with people, listening to stories of their childhoods and adult lives in West Virginia.
Many of the people I spoke to were born during the Great Depression and grew up in the 40s and 50s. They told stories of not having much and occasionally wondering where their next meal would come from. They talked of hard work to tend gardens and care for farm animals or seeing fathers come home from the coal mines, covered so completely all they could recognize were their fathers’ eyes. In spite of these things, most of the people telling the stories remembered those times positively, if not fondly.
Probably the most jaw-dropping story I heard was from Norma Sodaro. She came to Charleston in the early 1950s to attend nursing school. Charleston was the big city in her eyes after growing up in Shady Springs, West Virginia. Six weeks into her nursing program at St. Francis Hospital, she said, the hospital hired a black nurse and 23 white nurses walked out. (News reports I found said there were three nurses hired.)
Sodaro said the nursing students were put to work on the hospital floors caring for patients until St. Francis could bring in nurses from other hospitals to return the hospital to full staff. She explained that she knew nothing of charting or caring for patients at that time, but that didn’t matter, she got pressed into service. The story made national news at the time, even being covered by Time Magazine in May of 1951.
I bring this up mainly because it’s an amazing little piece of history and a story I’d never heard before, even though I grew up here. But, also, we West Virginians like to think we’re above those racial issues and attitudes. “We aren’t the deep south. We joined with the Union.” you will hear people say.
People often look back on the 1950s as the golden age of the United States while saying that things are falling apart today; sort of a “Happy Days” mentality. It’s also possible that we choose to forget the bad things and only remember the good..