Kimball War Memorial hosts program on World War I, commemorates African-American veterans

By Autumn Shelton, RealWV

KIMBALL, W.Va. – By the time World War I came to its official end on Nov. 11, 1918, more than 4.5 million American soldiers had fought in the Great War, including 380,000 African-American soldiers—1,500 of whom were from McDowell County. 

Today, in Kimball, those soldiers are commemorated at the nation’s first and only remaining memorial built to honor African-American veterans of World War I. 

In an ongoing effort to preserve the history of McDowell County, Clara Thompson, administrator of the Kimball World War I Memorial, recently delivered a presentation on the history of the memorial as part of an ongoing series for the McDowell County Historical Society. 

“World War I, also known as the Great War, was one of the deadliest conflicts in history,” Thompson began. “8.5 million died during the war.”

She explained that as veterans returned home to McDowell County, a group of white soldiers approached the McDowell County Commission asking that a memorial be built for them. 

The commissioners agreed to build a memorial in the town of Welch. 

“When the Black soldiers came back they, in turn, approached the county commission about building a memorial for African-American veterans of World War I,” Thompson said. “Now, keep in mind that this memorial was constructed during a period in American history in which our American citizens, especially African-American citizens, were not well embraced, and were considered by most to be two-thirds of a human being.” 

“In addition,” Thompson continued, “the African-American soldiers and veterans of this period were part of a segregated military organization.” 

But, that didn’t prevent a group of dedicated individuals from seeking out property that would become the future home of the memorial. They were able to find that property on a hillside in Kimball. 

The veterans memorial was designed by local architect Hassel T. Hicks, and dedicated on Feb. 11, 1928, Thompson said, adding that Dr. H.D. Hatfield, a former coal camp physician, nephew of “Devil Anse” Hatfield, and former West Virginia governor, was one of the keynote speakers for the dedication ceremony. 

Another keynote speaker for the dedication was delivered by Captain G.E. Ferguson, the only Black captain from West Virginia to serve in World War I. 

(To learn more about “Cap” Ferguson, check out this article in Black By God.)

Thompson stated that in his speech, Ferguson said he was “so thankful” that a memorial had been built to remember the sacrifices made, that the four pillars of structure should represent faith, hope, charity and service.

“Faith for faith in our country, its institutions, our maker and our people. Hope should stand for the hope that injustices and inequalities will, in time, be eradicated. Charity represents the bias of dealing with our fellow man, and that service should remind us our obligations are to community, country, state and nation,” Thompson said. 

For the next 40 years, the memorial served as a center of community action for all citizens as they held meetings, dances, reunions, proms, and more there,” Thompson continued. 

Performances by famous musicians including Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong were held inside the building, she noted. 

Kimball War Memorial, in McDowell County.

The building also served as the headquarters for the nation’s first all Black American Legion Post (Luther Patterson Post 36–named after the first African-American soldier killed in World War I, also from McDowell County), and hosted some of the state’s first NAACP meetings, she said.

“But, as coal mining dried up in McDowell County, so did money to keep the memorial going,” Thompson said. “The building fell out of use in the 1980s when the town’s population began to decline.” 

In February 1986, it was discovered that the McDowell County Commission decided to sell the war memorial. 

“However, this was not the end,” Thompson stated. 

Members of the Green Clover 4-H Club, published information into their newsletter that citizens needed to help preserve the memorial, and a petition was started to have the World War I Veterans Memorial placed onto the National Register of Historic Places, she said. 

Then, in 1991, the building was severely damaged in a fire that many believe was intentionally set, Thompson continued. However, in 1993, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places

“Despite numerous setbacks, and nearly 100 years after it’s construction, a restored war memorial has literally risen from the ashes to stand in tribute not only to the sacrifices of the largely unremembered black veterans of World War One, but to a group of people who devoted years to bringing this important building back to life,” Thompson said. 

Today, visitors can take tours of the World War I Memorial and community members are invited to rent the building for important functions. 

“To all of you that ride along Route 52, and all of you that ride along and think that this is a courthouse – it isn’t,” Thompson said. “We invite you to come in and see what is here.” 

To watch a complete video Thompson’s presentation, which includes a tour of the building, visit https://www.facebook.com/McdowellCountyWvHistoricalSociety/

Facebook
Twitter
Reddit
Email

Related stories

Give us your feedback