Social History of Charleston, West Virginia
A social history of education and racial justice in Charleston, WV.
When the Kanawha County Board of Education introduced new textbooks in June 1974, few could have predicted the resulting controversy. The decision was viewed as a routine matter by each board members until a handful of residents spoke in opposition to the inclusion of information related to the history, culture, and perspectives of minorities. School board member Alice Moore took up the cause of those who were concerned by the new books and her actions and those of others inspired newspaper ads and protests against the new books. Within weeks, some of the more militant opponents of the new books were engaged in physical fights with the defenders of the books. Community members marched with Confederate flags and members of the Ku Klux Klan descended upon the city threatening violence to anyone who opposed them. The violent rhetoric spawned death threats, shootings, and even the bombing of school buildings. A year of tension, violence, and arrests including attacks on school buses carrying children, attacks on the police, and even the bombing of several elementary schools and the Board of Education building. The event is known today as the "Kanawha County Textbook Controversy," a name that may fail to adequately describe the one-sided nature of the anti-intellectualism and racism that led to acts of violence against educators and schools.
In 1898, Black women in Charleston, West Virginia, organized a self-help civic organization called the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League. The League sponsored cultural events, supported education, and promoted a variety of causes that were important to members of the city's African American community. The women were particularly active in mentoring young women, creating two auxiliary organizations: Polly Pigtails for children and the League Teens for young women.
Elizabeth Harden Gilmore was a Charleston funeral director and a pioneer in the civil right movement in West Virginia. Gilmore was a leader and one of the founders of the local chapter of Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) that led sit-ins throughout Charleston. She also worked to secure the admission of African American Girl Scouts into the previously all-white Camp Anne Bailey. Gilmore led the first sit-in against the Diamond Department Store’s lunch counter in Downtown Charleston. Thanks to her leadership, the store opened the lunch counter to African American patrons in 1960. In 1988, Gilmore's home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Efforts continue to restore the home and operate it in a way that honors Gilmore's legacy.
The original 1920s Brown Building in The Block, a predominately African American neighborhood and business locations, was built by Anderson Hunt Brown, an African American real estate businessman, and son of former slaves. A second building was built after the 1960s following the purchase of the original. Anderson Brown was a prominent realtor and Civil Rights activist. His real estate included primary locations of many of the original businesses in The Block. Mr.Brown was one of the petitioners in a West Virginia lawsuit "Brown vs Kanawha County Board of Education" over the denial of Black persons to use the Kanawha County Public Library (West Virginia's own Brown vs Board of Education, like that of the famous Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, KS).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Charleston, WV in 1960 to speak at the First Baptist Church. It was the only time that he visited the state. He spoke on multiple topics but specifically desegregation.
Named for former slave Henry Highland Garnet (1815- 1882), Garnet High School served as one of three Black high schools in Kanawha County, WV. As most schools did, Garnet High School provided a vital cultural tie to members of the community it served. Throughout the era of segregation Garnet High School provided an excellent education for its students despite the limitations which developed under the "separate but equal" system. The school produced many notable alumni including the Reverend Leon Sullivan, medical pioneer John C. Norman, Jr., and television personality Tony Brown. Ivin Lee, the first woman to head a police department in West Virginia and the Executive Director of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission is also a graduate of Garnet High School. Today Garnet is utilized as a career center, a WV exemplary school.
Mattie V. Lee was the first African American woman physician from the state of West Virginia, and was heavily involved in efforts to provide housing for female students and as a center for social events. The Mattie V. Lee house was established in 1915 as a safe haven for African American girls who relocated to Charleston, WV in search of employment. Historically, the home served as a social, religious, and cultural center, as well as helping in the process of residents becoming employed. Today the Mattie V. Lee Home is an addiction treatment center for the Prestera Center.
The Staats Hospital Building was designed by John C. Norman, the first registered African American architect in West Virginia, in 1922. Originally, the structure housed the Glendale Lodge of the Knights of Pythias, the West Side’s first movie theatre, offices and retailers. The second and third floor of the structure was utilized as Staats Hospital from the early 1920s until 1982. The Staats Hospital Building began to deteriorate after the removal of Staats, and after being placed on the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s Endangered Properties List, it is currently in the process of being restored. Crawford Holdings purchased the building in 2014, and has used multiple grants to aid in the preservation process.
One of Charleston's oldest homes, this beautiful antebellum residence is located on the West Side directly across the street from Stonewall Jackson Middle School. It is possibly the only antebellum home with slave quarters still standing in the Kanawha Valley, a structure that is located directly behind the home and known as "The Quarters."
Mary C. Snow was the first Black principal in Kanawha County after desegregation. She also received several community awards and served on the Human Rights Commission. Still, getting her name on the elementary was not an easy task and required marches and work by the Black community, the staff and students of the school and others. Perseverance paid out and her name was finally added after several years.
Christopher Fairfield Hopson was a prominent African American physician and public figure in Charleston, West Virginia. Born in Arkansas in 1890, Hopson received a medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1918 before relocating to Charleston and opening a private practice. During the 1950s, he built and operated a medical office at the corner of 1st Avenue and Bream Street, where he secured a contract with the City of Charleston to provide physicals for government employees on the city's west side. According to oral histories, Hopson worked to break down racial barriers in Charleston by attending to both white and Black patients. Hopson was also involved in state and local politics, serving as Chairman of the West Virginia Negro Democratic Organization in 1928 and 1940, and as the director of the West Virginia Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics from 1941 to 1955. He is also notable for carving a tribute to Nat Turner - the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion - on one of the apartment buildings he owned, a bold statement given the tumultuous race relations of the 1950s and 1960s. Later in his life, Hopson became involved in farming and raising livestock. He died in Charleston in 1981.