By Brianna Rhodes, Black by God
West Virginia is one of the most beautiful, mountainous states in the United States. Known for its significant contributions to the mining and logging industry, West Virginia’s historical sites and cemeteries help tell the story of its rich history and how it has become what it is today.
Since it became a state in 1863, Black Americans have played a big part in West Virginia’s development and have created a unique, cultural experience in the Appalachian region.
To honor West Virginia’s Black history and culture, we’ve chosen four sites and cemeteries that highlight Black West Virginians’ impact on the Mountain State..
Barnett Hospital and Nursing School — Huntington, West Virginia
Dr. Clinton Constantine “C.C.” Barnett dreamed of creating a Black-owned and operated hospital to provide quality health care and treatment for Black Americans. His dream came true when he founded Barnett Hospital in 1912 in Huntington.
The three-story rectangular building became one of the most well-known Black hospitals during the 20th century. The hospital provided quality healthcare, treatment, and education for patients, physicians, and nurses from 1912 to 1930.
While Black Americans faced segregation and discrimination from white hospitals and medical schools during that time, Barnett Hospital gave them the healthcare services they deserved. The hospital provided new opportunities for the community and attracted Black Americans from all over the country to Huntington.
In 1918, The hospital expanded to include a nursing school run by Dr. Barnett’s wife Clara Matthews. The hospital also launched internship programs for Black doctors. Although several medical schools accepted Black students, many hospitals refused to train them as interns, and many nursing schools did not accept Black applicants.
The hospital thrived for many years until it closed in 1939.
The General Laborers Union Local 543 bought and ran the building until 2007. The original Barnett Hospital was placed on the National Register of Historic Places two years later. The owners, Johnny and Karen Nance, are working to receive financial support to restore the hospital and renovate it to provide housing to the Huntington community. ‘
This historic site significantly impacted the success and development of the Black community in Huntington. Barnett Hospital is one of the last remnants of the once-thriving African-American neighborhood in West Virginia.
The Hawks Nest Tunnel and Cemetery — Ansted and Gauley Bridge, West Virginia
Coal mining has played a major role in cultivating West Virginia’s significance in the country. Not only has it largely impacted the state’s economic success, but it has also contributed to the tragedies and deaths of many workers in the state.
The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel incident in 1930 “became one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of the United States,” according to an NPR article . Thousands of men worked on constructing the three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain to send water to a hydroelectric plant to produce electricity for a metals plant in Alloy.
At least two-thirds of the approximately 5,000 workers that worked on the segregated site were Black Americans. These men worked under harsh conditions and denied access to protective gear and breathing apparatuses, even though company engineers used them.
The job required the men to drill through rock that contained high levels of silica, which exposed them to silica dust. The exposure affected the workers’ health by impairing their vision and clogging their lungs within months. The men were diagnosed with an uncured lung disease called silicosis that infects the lungs leading to shortness of breath and eventually death.
At least 764 men died from silicosis, and The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel led to the greatest death toll ever from the disease in the United States. Many more people died after the completion of the project.
A funeral parlor in Summersville had to find a solution for where to bury the deceased workers since there were no burial sites for Black workers. The funeral parlor found an open field nearby on Martha White’s farm to bury their bodies.
Today, the tunnel continues to help supply water to produce hydroelectricity for the Alloy plant. A memorial on Highway 19 stands as a historical marker to honor and recognize the victims of the tragedy.
Camp Washington Carver — Clifftop, West Virginia
Originally named The Negro 4-H Camp , Camp Washington Carver opened on July 26, 1942. It became the first 4-H camp built by the Civilian Conservation Corps to offer opportunities, events, and activities for Black youth in West Virginia.
West Virginia State College renamed the camp and cultural arts center after two prominent Black figures, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Still in operation after many decades, the center continues to celebrate the richness of Black cultural heritage through teachings focused on agriculture, music, crafts, home economics, and more.
Over 10,000 people visit Camp Washington Carver annually to attend events such as the Heritage Arts Camp, the Appalachian String Band Festival, and the Great Chestnut Lodge. Visitors also come to rent the camp site and center for family reunions, company picnics, weddings, and other private activities. It is known as a prime location to attend Mountain State festivities.
Camp Washington Carver is one of the top historic sites that symbolizes Black accomplishments and unity in the state.
Green Hill Historic African American Cemetery – Martinsburg, West Virginia
The Green Hill Cemetery became a burial ground for white citizens in 1854.
Since enslaved and free Black people were not allowed to be buried in the cemetery, a short concrete wall was built to separate the adjacent burial sites, according to an article by Mid Atlantic Day Trips . The men, women, and children buried in the small burial ground were more than likely enslaved individuals who worked for white families in Martinsburg. With their grave sites located on”steeply sloped land,”the cemetery is a physical representation of the effects on segregation and inequality on the country today.
The town of Martinsburg seemingly forgot about the burial grounds over the years. Citizens treated the area as a place to dispose of trash. Although the cemetery was rediscovered in the 1970s, citizens continued to dispose of their tires, garbage, old appliances, and more in the area.
In 2017, the Green Hill Historic African American Cemetery organization began to clean and care for the site to respect the deceased and preserve the land. Since many grave sites are unmarked, the organization is working to identify and honor those who are buried in the cemetery. Their lives were important and the cemetery’s history should be recognized to tell the full, Black history in West Virginia.
Historic places and cemeteries symbolize Black Americans’ hardships, struggles, and triumphs in West Virginia. Every location tells a story about the state’s past, and we must recognize them to understand and acknowledge the significance of our heritage.