The WVU P.I. Reed School of Journalism is sharing the forgotten story of African American soldiers who fought in World War I.
Associate Professor Joel Beeson and his students will unveil the exhibit, Forgotten Legacy: Soldiers of the Coalfields, which examines the story of African-Americans who migrated to McDowell County, W.Va., from the rural South in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and who served in the U.S. military during wartime.
Beeson says the exhibit will feature artifacts, photographs and documents that provide an interactive experience for visitors.
“Instead of telling someone the story, we’re letting them piece the story together themselves,” said Beeson. “This will allow people to talk about race and the history of race relations in a much more complex way than the one dimensional stereotypes that sometimes dominate such conversations.”
The exhibit will officially open to the public following a dedication ceremony on Saturday, Nov.13, at 5 p.m. and will be housed in the Kimball War Memorial Building in Kimball, W.Va.
The display will contain a room for veterans to tell their stories and be recorded, as well as two full wall exhibits of photographs from the World War I time period.
As director of the West Virginia Veterans History Project, Beeson has acquired and edited more than 500 photographs, including historical World War I images and a photographic social survey of McDowell County coal miners by the famous Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee.
Beeson says the images demonstrate that Southern coalfields were more integrated than many people might realize.
“The miners bonded together under dangerous conditions – their jobs often trumped skin color,” said Beeson. “One of the quotes often heard from school children was ‘when our fathers came out of the mine they were all black.’ It was this kind of economic opportunity that drew African Americans to McDowell County and Kimball.”
The Kimball War Memorial Building, where the exhibit will be housed, is the nation’s first and only war memorial honoring the 400,000 African-American soldiers that fought in World War I. The building itself has been through tough times. Dedicated in 1928, it served as a center for community life until the early 1970s when it began to deteriorate. Vandalism and a fire in 1991 left the building in ruins.
It took nearly 20 years to restore the building, and Kimball War Memorial Board member E. Ray Williams says he has high hopes for the project’s impact on the community.
“I would love to see this building bring communities together,” said Williams. “This building is so important to what’s happening in America now . . . the coming together of all races and cultures.”
In addition to the building’s exhibit, there will be an online component as well. The project website will debut on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, at http://forgottenlegacywwi.org/.
Beeson became acquainted with the McDowell County memorial and its board members in 2004 while working on his documentary, Fighting on Two Fronts: The Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans.
In the fall of 2009, Beeson shared the idea of creating a photo exhibit for the memorial with students in his visual storytelling class. What started out as a class assignment evolved into the exhibit.
Brianna Swisher (BSJ, 2010), one of the students who helped start the project, is now continuing her work as an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer.
“We started asking questions, and we needed to know more about Kimball, so Professor Beeson planned a trip for us,” said Swisher. “We just became connected to the town and the people there. After that trip, I knew that I wanted to be the person to hang the pictures on the wall – I wanted to finish this project.”
Work on the project was initially funded through a 2010 WVU Public Service Grant. This fall, the project has also been awarded a mini grant through the West Virginia Compact- Campus Community LINK project and a Major Grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council.
Read the official release on WVU Today.