A worldwide audience can view a West Virginia University researcher’s work on Appalachia’s African American history on his virtual exhibit “Soldiers of the Coalfields: The Hidden Stories of Black Appalachians in WWI,” one of 100 stories highlighted by the Google Cultural Institute in celebration of Black History Month.
Joel Beeson, an associate professor at the WVU Reed College of Media, created the online gallery that chronicles the stories of African Amercians who migrated to McDowell County in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and then went on to serve in the U.S. military. The town of Kimball is home to one of the nation’s earliest World War I memorials honoring black soldiers.
Beeson’s project is featured on the Google Arts & Culture website alongside the National African American Museum of History and Culture, the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution and the King Center.
“Being featured during Black History Month, along with major cultural institutions around the world, is so important to counter the stereotypes of ‘white Appalachia’ with rich and diverse histories of its people,” Beeson said. “This elevates those stories to international prominence.”
Beeson is an invited beta partner with the Google Cultural Institute and the College’s Media Innovation Center. He began his work on the African Americans in Appalachia project more than 10 years ago. Beeson led a class project to create a photo exhibit for the Kimball War Memorial that evolved into a cultural heritage project supported by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. This work led to a collaboration with the United States World War I Centennial Commission, and eventually to the partnership with Google.
“Dr. Beeson has dedicated much of his career as a journalist and educator to giving voice to people typically left out of the national dialogue and the historical record,” said College of Media Dean Maryanne Reed. “This partnership with Google gives him an opportunity to publish his work on a platform that has a global reach.”
Beeson is currently working on a commissioned virtual reality project for Google Expeditions, an app that allows teachers to take students on immersive, virtual journeys around the world. His project will take viewers on a tour of WWI-era United States through the eyes of the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential black weekly newspaper at that time. Students will follow the story of the 8th Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, the only entirely black military unit during the war.
“Soldiers of the Coalfields” virtual exhibit has been a labor of love for Beeson, who is determined to make sure these stories aren’t lost or forgotten. Information or documents concerning African American WWI veterans from West Virginia can be shared with Beeson at Joel.Beeson@mail.wvu.edu or 304.293.6757.