CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- February is Black History Month, but at Heritage Towers Museum in downtown Charleston they like to say it's always black history month -- no matter the date.
The small museum at 612 Virginia St. is devoted in a big way to recounting black history via artifacts, displays, installations, talk and more.
"It's a learning tool for the general population, basically," said Charles Minimah, CEO and director of the nonprofit All-Aid International, which sponsors the museum.
The exhibits move sequentially, room to room, beginning with African artifacts such as an ornamental mask from Nigeria's Ibo tribe and a rare wooden birthing table from the Chokwe tribe, to a room with a re-creation of an African hut with a hunter's tunic strung with talismans hanging on one wall.
A hallway exhibit depicts the horrible conditions of the Middle Passage, when Africans were torn from their villages and shackled and stacked in slave boats for the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Slave quarters are seen in one room with a re-creation of a slave auction block in one corner, where slave auctions are sometimes dramatized for museum visitors. Hanging out the window of the slave hut is a quilt, serving its role as a directional guide in the Underground Railroad.
"This pattern is the flying geese, pointing in the direction for runaway slaves, or fugitive slaves, the next freedom station to stop by or the location where they could spend the night and eventually find freedom up north," Minimah said.
"The master or anybody watching it could just look at it as someone hanging up clothes to dry."
The gallery moves on to another room full of coal mining artifacts and photos, including a photo of one of the segregated West Virginia coal mining towns where black miners and their families lived.
"People don't realize quite a significant amount of African-Americans worked in the coal mines here in West Virginia. The state of West Virginia has not done a good job, in my opinion, in depicting the role and participation of African-Americans within the mines," Minimah said.
Another room depicts a timeline of black American history while a restroom evokes the Jim Crow era with separate doors for "Whites" and "Colored."
Heritage Towers came about unexpectedly, Minimah said. "The museum actually is an accident."
Minimah is a native Nigerian who came to West Virginia to attend West Virginia State College in Institute. Many years later, he formed All-Aid International, which helped to showcase a half-size replica of the Henrietta Marie slave ship at the West Virginia Culture Center in 2000.