The nation constructed its first building to memorialize African-American soldiers of World War I in a southern West Virginia coal town. University students are working with community members to ensure that this monument to history helps revitalize the region's future.
Since 2009, journalism students at West Virginia University have been guardians of history at the first building in the United States to memorialize African American World War I veterans. With the guidance of Professor Joel Beeson, the students have developed an exhibit called “Soldiers of the Coalfields” at the Kimball World War I Memorial in McDowell County, West Virginia, and created an online counterpart (forgottenlegacywwi.org) – and they’re not stopping yet.
The Kimball World War I Memorial was completed in 1928 in an African American community in McDowell County. For years, it served as a community center that transcended racial divides. “There would be parties, weddings, birthdays, and people would rent the hall – and it was multi-racial,” Beeson explains.
When the coal industry began to decline in the 50’s, employment and incomes in McDowell country dropped, and residents began to leave. Lacking educational opportunities for African American students in its segregated university system, West Virginia also established a program that paid to send black students to universities in other states.
“What they were doing was sending the best and brightest African Americans out of the state to be educated, and most of them didn’t come back because there was more opportunity elsewhere,” Beeson says.
As a result, the Kimball War Memorial fell into disrepair in the second half of the century. E. Ray Williams, long-time Kimball resident and Kimball War Memorial Board Member, recalls extensive vandalism and a fire in 1991 that left the building roofless.
“The building is a part of my history. My family moved to this area in the middle of the 20s and the building was put up there in ’28,” he says. “In high school, I had the opportunity to take part in a number of activities at that building, and when it burned, it took a lot out of the area and my life.”
Local residents led efforts to restore the building with a combination of local, state and federal funding. Their work has been honored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Congressional Black Caucus and the West Virginia Chapter of the America Institute of Architects.
Beeson, who serves as director of the West Virginia Veterans Oral History Project, and whose current research focuses on ethnic and media studies, got his students involved after those local efforts to renovate the structure. Upon learning more about McDowell County, they realized that the building wasn’t the only part of the area to decline over the years, and they devised a project that aims to do much more than physically restore the memorial.
According to a report by MSN Money, McDowell was the poorest county in West Virginia in the 2010 census, with 33.6% of all residents and 45.4% of residents under 18 living below the poverty line. Volunteer Brianna Swisher recalls that one initial aim for the project was to revitalize the county’s economy. “One of our goals was to increase tourism to a community that is pretty impoverished, and to find a way to draw people in,” she says.
While Beeson admits that tourism has not yet increased significantly as a result of the exhibit, he thinks that a mobile phone application that his wife is developing might be a missing piece to the puzzle. Called Mobile Main Street (mymobilemainstreet.com), the application aims to strengthen rural economies by helping news outlets, small businesses, and local organizations reach new audiences, and it is currently being piloted in McDowell County. Beeson expects that the Kimball War Memorial exhibit is an example of the attractions that the community has been missing, and that the app will help potential visitors find it.
Beeson also recalls that the media had given West Virginia an exaggerated reputation for racism, and the 2008 movie “The Express” did not help. “In the film, [African American college football star Ernie Davis] comes to West Virginia to play, and people spit on him and throw stuff and use the n-word, and that never happened – it was fictional,” Beeson explains. “And in fact, West Virginia was one of the first states to integrate their athletics.”
McDowell County was once a center of the state’s African American population, and had the first female, African American state legislator in the country. Beeson also recalls hearing during interviews about how coal mining brought workers together across racial divides. He says he hopes that the exhibit will show visitors that racial relations in West Virginia are more complex than the media portrayals.
Swisher is careful, however, to note that histories recounted in the memorial are not entirely free of racial tension. “A lot of artifacts in [the memorial] are racist, but that is what was accurate,” she recounts. “That is what we found in our research.” The artifacts included relics of segregation like signs identifying “whites only” showers.
The Soldiers of the Coalfields project team is now working on a new exhibit component that will help reopen the dialogue on race relations in McDowell County. In collaboration with the WVU Computer Science department, the students are working to create an interactive touch table and corresponding mobile phone experience. The technologies will showcase African American women from the community reading social commentary from a 1918 book of poems. Visitors will have the opportunity to join in the conversation by rearranging words from the book to create their own poems. Beeson expects the touch table to be ready for installation in the fall.
The idea for the Soldiers of the Coalfields project grew from Professor Beeson’s documentary work on African American soldiers from West Virginia. Beeson was interviewing Williams, who served in a black artillery unit during World War II. Upon learning that Beeson would be taking a trip to the National Archives, Williams asked him to find some pictures of other African American soldiers that could be displayed in the memorial.
“I ended up collecting a lot more than a few,” Beeson recalls. “I collected about 500 images and scanned them all at the archives.”
Searching for something to do with the photographs, Beeson devised an assignment for his Visual Storytelling course in the fall of 2009. Each student was to use the scans and imagine a documentary photographic exhibit for the Kimball War Memorial building. After presenting their work to the memorial’s board of directors, the students resolved to turn their designs into reality, and the professor agreed.
Swisher stayed involved with the project for multiple years, working first as an undergraduate, then as an Americorps VISTA volunteer, and finally as a graduate assistant. “Once we went down and toured the Kimball War Memorial facility and met the people, I fell in love with it,” she says. “I came back and said ‘Ok, how can we make this a real project?’”
Starting with just three students, the project team applied for grant funding and got started. Swisher remembers everything from research field trips to the National Archives and Library of Congress to late nights spent installing the exhibit at the memorial. Since the project’s inception, Beeson estimates that approximately 200 undergraduates, graduate students, and volunteers have been involved in creating the exhibit.