Memorial Preserves More Than the Past
[imgbelt img=museum.jpg]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.
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.
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.”