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SOJ professors, students to launch online store to promote African American War Memorial

Students and professors at West Virginia University’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism are using new media to transform cultural heritage into economic development in rural West Virginia. They are doing so through the launch of an online store to support The Kimball World War I Memorial in McDowell County.

The e-commerce effort is the latest addition to the exhibit Forgotten Legacy: Soldiers of the Coalfields produced by School of Journalism students and faculty. Housed in the Kimball WWI Memorial Building, the interactive exhibit examines the story of African-Americans who migrated to McDowell County from the rural South in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and who served in the U.S. military during wartime.

“An online store will create a larger market for products and provide drastically needed financial support to tell the story of these soldiers and this community to the world,” said E. Ray Williams, Kimball War Memorial board member.

The online shop is hosted through Café Press, an online retailer of stock and user-customized on-demand products. The Kimball Memorial joins hundreds of other museums and galleries from around the world – from the Guggenheim to the Smithsonian – in using Café Press as a form of public outreach and community entrepreneurship.

“We wanted to launch the online store during Black History Month to engage more young people and raise awareness of the value of cultural heritage – both as a source of community solidarity and a vehicle for economic development,” said Associate Professor and project director Joel Beeson.

The online store opens with a selection of exhibit-related posters, t-shirts, notebooks and postcards. School of Journalism student Andrew Lawson, who has worked with the “Forgotten Legacy” project for more than a year, led the design of the online venture.

“As a journalist, I never thought I’d venture into the merchandising field,” said Lawson. “I’m happy I had the opportunity to pursue other ways to reach out to an audience.”

Lawson will continue his work on the project when he and other students from Beeson’s multimedia reporting class travel to Kimball, for the official launch of the online store Feb. 25. While there, they will also gather oral histories, conduct interviews and recruit community youth to participate in the next phase of the project – a multimedia workshop to be held this summer. During the summer workshop, McDowell area youth will learn how to collect and record digital oral histories and personal artifacts to produce content for the exhibit’s interactive website, mobile and iPad platforms. These applications will provide further revenue and tourist opportunities for the Memorial and the community.

The summer workshop is funded by a Major Grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council. Community members interested in participating should contact Beeson at joel.beeson@mail.wvu.edu or (304) 293-6757.