SHC in Mud Creek, Kentucky

Eula Hall at Mud Creek.

[Story contributed by Jack Beckford, with assistance from Sara Platt Williams]

During the Fall of 1970, the SHC was contacted by the Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization (EKWRO), centered in Floyd Co, Ky. EKWRO was already doing organizing among low-income residents in this coal country of mountainous eastern Kentucky. The dynamic leader of EKWRO, a woman named Eula Hall,  invited the SHC to bring a health fair to Mud Creek.

Eula Hall, born 1927, was one of seven children of share croppers, raised in Floyd Co and neighboring Pike Co. In the 8th grade, during WWII, she dropped out of school and got a job at a defense plant in New York. She was fired and forced to return to Kentucky after she was charged, at age 15, with “inciting a labor riot” concerned with poor working conditions. At 17 she married a coal miner and had five children, all delivered at home without ever seeing a doctor or receiving any prenatal care. One of the children died in infancy. Another was born prematurely and was deaf.

As a self-described “hillbilly activist” Eula became a VISTA, then an “Appalachian Volunteer” (AV). During this time she helped organize EKWRO as a citizens group to fight for the rights of low-income people, including better health care. She knew all too well the dire need for improved health care in the mountains.

In 1970, Eula heard about the Student Health Coalition Health Fairs in eastern Tennessee and understood that an EKWRO-sponsored SHC Health Fair could raise the visibility of health issues and highlight the need for a local clinic controlled by the community.

When the SHC was invited, Mud Creek already had 2 VISTA volunteers in the area coordinating, somewhat problematically, with EKWRO. In addition to Eula Hall, there was another former “Appalachian Volunteer” organizer living in Mud Creek. Wikipedia describes “Appalachian Volunteers” as “a non-profit organization engaged in community development projects in central Appalachia that evolved into a controversial community organizing network, with a reputation that went “from self-help to sedition” as its staff developed from “reformers to radicals,” in the words of one historian, in the brief period between 1964 and 1970 during the War on Poverty.” Mud Creek’s AV was much more “native” to Mud Creek than the VISTA volunteers. The two young “outsider” VISTA volunteers made no bones about their “radical” political views. The former AV, with a wife and kids, and living long term in his single-wide in Mud Creek, was a much more accepted member of the community, and worked more effectively with EKWRO.

The SHC, and the two still-wet-behind-the-ears recent Vandy graduate “organizers” it sent to Mud Creek for the summer of 1971, were one small piece of the decades of successful work Eula Hall was able to accomplish. We realized we were invited guests of an active organizing effort, in contrast to the model from most other health fairs where the SHC felt we were leading an effort to get citizens involved in organizing for health services.

The SHC organizers’ role during the summer of 1971 was primarily to help EKWRO publicize and prepare logistics for the late summer health fair, held at the small community center/offices of EKWRO. One of the organizers, Vanderbilt Nursing graduate Sara Platt (now Sara Platt Williams) recalls setting up a very part-time “clinic” operation at that office, for only a few days during the summer. Her role was basically to confirm to someone that “yes, you are sick enough that you should see a doctor.” She recalls administering a few albuterol breathing treatments to miners suffering from black lung. She saw very few patients and spent much more time driving over dry creek beds, repairing blown out tires, and promoting the upcoming health fair.

Two other issues were of note during the SHC’s work with EKWRO:

1. As the SHC was being invited to Mud Creek, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which was providing significant SHC funding, was pressured by the Kentucky reps on its Board of Directors to withhold funding from the Coalition for working with EKWRO. EKWRO had a reputation as a “trouble making” group which had successfully exposed graft and corruption in the local county and regional public health operations in previous years.

Recall the previously discussed connections of EKWRO with the Appalachian Volunteers? A few years prior to our Health Fair, some leaders of AV had been arrested and charged with “sedition” (“plotting the violent overthrow of Pike County, Ky.”) after successfully stopping a strip-mining operation. Books that supposedly demonstrated their seditious nature included “a large number of works about Communism, including a couple dozen by Marx, Engels, and Lenin,” as well as copies of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, and Mao’s Little Red Book. Three days after the charges were filed, federal appeals court judge Bert T. Combs (a former Kentucky governor) declared Kentucky’s sedition statute unconstitutional and dismissed the charges against the AV staff.

ARC Board members from Kentucky did not want to be funding any project that worked with such troublemakers. No charges had to be brought now; they just didn’t want to provide funding to a group to work with EKWRO. The SHC’s entire funding from ARC was threatened if we went to Mud Creek. Unfortunately, the two leading SHC negotiators on this issue have both passed away. All that anyone alive now knows for sure is that the SHC did go to Mud Creek in 1971 and we apparently had money to do so.

2. Many Mud Creek residents already had a deep suspicion of health agencies, outsiders, and politicians, which might easily be related to the previous issue. This suspicion came out as discussions opened about how the SHC would handle patient medical reports from exams at the health fair. Many patients did not trust local doctors, hospitals, or other medical facilities. They were afraid that patient records would/could be shared inappropriately with employers, politicians, law enforcement, etc. The final resolution, in order to ensure that patients were confident their medical exam records would not be seen inappropriately, was that records of medical exams would not be returned to Floyd Co, but housed at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Patients alone could request that those records be forwarded to any other medical personnel or facility.

In 1973, two years after hosting the SHC “Health Fair”, Eula Hall successfully opened the “Mud Creek Clinic.” That clinic, still existing in 2019, after building new facilities and expanding more than once, is a shining example of treating anyone walking through its door, ability to pay or not. Its reputation grew to such an extent that patients come from as far away as West Virginia, Tennessee, and Ohio. For years, Eula Hall has been its “Patient Advocate.” The clinic has handled over 213,000 patient encounters some years.

The current clinic building opened its doors in 1984 as a modern 5,200 square foot brick building. The clinic houses its own laboratory, X-ray machines, and pharmacy, and has expanded to include an adjacent 1,800 square foot building that houses a dental clinic, clothing room, and a food pantry that serves more than 100 families per month.

The SHC can hardly take much credit, beyond being one small piece of the foundation, for this incredibly successful community clinic. We are really glad we were able to be at least that one small part, working with one amazing woman, for one summer.


Note: Some Eula Hall bio gained from : “Kentucky’s Godmother to the Poor” by Michael Winerip, Oct 24, 1991, People Magazine.