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‘That close community we had’

WILCOE — Fifty years before the Brown v. Board decision, in the early 1900s, the owners of U.S. Coal & Coke Co. built 11 coal camps in a row, like a string of rough beads along the Tug River in McDowell County.

They named them for company lawyers, managers, and relatives: Gary, Wilcoe, Anawalt, Jenkinjones, and Thorpe.

In that rugged, unsettled valley, they erected an enormous tipple to process millions of tons of coal and laid down railroad tracks to haul the coal out of West Virginia.

In the southern states, company agents signed up black laborers, many of them sons of ex-slaves. At Ellis Island, they recruited Eastern Europeans fresh off the boat — Hungarians, Slovaks, Italians.

Thousands of men poured into the valley. Alabamans slept next to Poles who didn’t speak a word of English.

Ulysses Wilkerson, a young black recruit, arrived about 1904, hoping to make some money, then go back to Virginia and farm. He never left. After a few years in the mines, he switched to barbering in a company building. He cut white people’s hair on the main floor and black people’s hair downstairs. On the side, he ran a little poolroom.

He saved money and put three children through West Virginia Colored Institute, now called West Virginia State University. But black men didn’t have much choice of jobs then in McDowell County. His college-educated son mined coal during the week and cut hair on weekends.

His grandson, Ron Wilkerson, grew up to be a Kanawha Valley contractor and landscape architect. But in the early 1950s, Wilkerson was a kid living in Thorpe with five brothers and sisters in the four-room house the company had assigned his grandfather years before.

White people lived along the paved road, he said, and black people lived on the hillsides and up the hollows. “The Hungarians were on the other side of the river, and Italians were mixed in everywhere,” he said. “You could walk through neighborhoods and hear different languages.”

At least 24,000 black people lived in McDowell County in 1950, about 20 percent of the population, making it the largest black community in the state.

“We had such a vibrant black community,” Wilkerson said. “There was always a lot of comradeship from camp to camp. In the streets, at football games, at church, people joking, telling stories, trading news.

“We looked out for each other. The bonds were strong. The grownups knew what we were up against in the larger world. The kids were just having a good time.”

He and his playmates played marbles and horseshoes and rambled all over the camp. They watched their dads play baseball in the field between the railroad and the river.

They climbed the slag dump at the end of the next hollow, camped in the woods, and ate at each other’s houses. “I had many mothers,” he said. “We all did.”

White kids and black kids didn’t mix much in Thorpe, he said. Only one white boy came up to play with them. “We roughhoused with him, and he kept coming back. We loved that guy,” Wilkerson said.

Schools were segregated. Black kids went to the black schools. White kids went to the white schools.

From their porch, the Wilkerson kids could see the white kids’ brick grade school. Each school day, rain or snow, they walked past that school, to the black grade school a mile upriver. “I hated that walk, but our school was great,” he said.

“People assume white schools had better teachers and white schools were automatically better. In our case — and in many cases — that wasn’t true.

“First of all, we had wonderful teachers.” That fact overshadowed their dilapidated buildings and worn-out books, he said. “Black people couldn’t get most jobs, so the most educated black people often became teachers. So us kids got the benefit. A lot of our teachers had M.A.s and even a few Ph.D.s.

“Our teachers were strict, but loving. We kissed them and hugged them. They told us over and over, ‘It’s not easy in the white man’s world. You’ve got to work hard, take pride and be better than good.’”

The whole community was determined to move the kids forward, he said. “They’d come a long way in two generations in those camps, and they wanted to open as many doors for us as they could.”

Kids learned racial taboos

The Gary area never suffered the lynchings or open Ku Klux Klan violence that broke out in other parts of McDowell County, though the Klan was definitely there. The coal company, renamed U.S. Steel, did not tolerate organized violence. Black and white miners knew each other from work and the union.

But the kids learned racial taboos early on. They knew not to go to the front counter

of the drug store or the front of the Franklin Dairy, Wilkerson said. “You wouldn’t even think about walking in a white church. When you went to the movies, you sat in the balcony.”

The mines were mechanizing, and black miners were being laid off disproportionately. Blacks could not get jobs in the white establishment — retail, office work, government work — no matter how many degrees they had.

An official-looking commemorative book, “McDowell County Centennial, 1858-1958,” was published four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the public schools to desegregate. It contains dozens of pictures of white people, but only two black faces, laborers in the background of photos.

“That shows how the McDowell County white establishment thought of black people then,” Wilkerson said. “They felt our people and our institutions didn’t deserve to be pictured.

“Those people were in charge of desegregating the schools,” he said. “Imagine you had to put your kids in the hands of people who didn’t want you in a book like that.”

In spring 1954, after the Brown v. Board decision, the McDowell County board of education — like many county boards — let it be known that black parents could send their kids to white schools in the fall if they wanted to.

All summer, in kitchens, in the barber shop, at the rec center, black people debated. On one hand, white schools had more up-to-date materials and less crowded classrooms. But the kids were likely to run into Lord-knows-what kind of discrimination. And many parents wanted their kids to be taught by the best black teachers.

“People think blacks couldn’t wait to leave their schools, but it was much more complicated than that,” Wilkerson said.

Most parents decided to keep their kids in the black schools. But Wilkerson’s parents sent their grade schoolers to the white school they could see from their porch. “My mother said we weren’t going to walk by it anymore.”

So, on the first morning of school, in fall 1954, three Wilkerson kids, about 17 other black students, and their parents turned up at Thorpe Grade School.

An angry group of white parents was waiting. They tried to keep them from going in the school. “Our parents stood up to them,” Wilkerson recalled.

A scuffle broke out, shoving and punching. Inside, more white parents blocked the stairs. The sheriff arrested a white woman with a gun.

In some of the other coal camps, small groups of black kids enrolled peacefully. Not in Thorpe.

Wilkerson’s parents made him stick it out for three years, hoping attitudes would improve.

“It was bad,” he said. White teachers didn’t help black kids with their lessons, he said. His confidence sank. He watched his teacher beat on one of his friends for something the boy didn’t do. “I shut up after that. I wouldn’t talk.”

His sister had an easier time, he said, especially after she won the school spelling bee, “which flat-out amazed them.”

After sixth grade, his parents let him choose between the white and black high schools. He chose the black school. “I’ve never been so glad to get anywhere,” he said.

The pain of desegregation

“A lot of people think desegregation hurt our community, the way it was done,” Wilkerson said. “At our high school reunions, person after person says so.”

In 1963, after the federal government threatened to cut off federal funds to any county that did not desegregate, McDowell County — like many counties — closed the black high school. Statewide, most of the black teachers lost their jobs. “We lost those strong black role models, and the white teachers had no real interest in us.”

The black community lost control of their kids’ education.

In 1965, Wilkerson was in the last senior class at the black high school, Gary District High School. At newly integrated Gary High School, six of 35 teachers were black.

Ironically, that year, “Gary District scored higher on the achievement tests than the white school, Gary High,” he said.

“Considerably higher,” Clinton Giles agrees.

Today, Giles is principal of one of the state’s biggest high schools, Charleston’s Capital High. The year they closed Gary District High School, he was a quiet, skinny freshman who had gone through grade school at Wilcoe Colored Elementary. “Coal stove, two grades to a room, and teachers I would not hesitate to hire today.”

He remembers the white high school vividly too. “As soon as we got there, they tracked us,” he said. They shunted new black high schoolers away from college-prep classes for at least the next three years, he said.

“They steered even our top students away from the academic track.”

Black kids — including Giles — found themselves in the business skills track or vocational track where, according to school board publications, students learned to be “skilled labor:” coal miners, auto mechanics, typists, nurses’ aides, body repairmen, electricians, and so forth.

Giles said black students were ignored or neglected, not pushed to achieve higher levels. “It was clear they wanted to prepare us to be laborers. It set our whole community back. The only black students coming out of Gary High in the academic track in those years were those who insisted on it, demanded it.”

His parents had warned him not to become a problem at his new school. “They said, ‘This is reality now. You will be successful anyhow.’”

He kept that in mind. After high school, he worked six years in the coal mines and spent two years in the Army, saving money for college. Eventually, he earned two masters degrees. “But I wonder how many black students gave up on their dreams.”

As he got his masters in education administration, he thought about what had happened in McDowell County. Without teachers who pushed them to excel, black students of all ages lost discipline, lost confidence and fell behind, he said.

“So did integration hurt our community? Yes, it did, the way they carried it out. It was a different form of segregation,” he said, “done in a subtle, but effective way.”

Yet, in the long run, he feels, the Brown v. Board decision was one of the best things that ever happened because it has forced changes in attitudes. “Is the playing field level, now? No, ma’am, it is not. But there is a big difference.”

In the early ‘80s, in McDowell County, he ran into the retired guidance counselor who had put him in vocational education in high school. “She stopped me on the street and apologized,” he said. “She said it wasn’t right what they did to us, and she was sorry she took part in it.”

He was stunned.

‘A high school like this’


It wasn’t just McDowell County. All over the country in the ‘50s and ‘60s, prejudiced people found ways to subvert the Brown v. Board ruling. Black students were tracked, put in special education, forced out of school, kept out of advanced courses. Black teachers lost their jobs.

“This had its effect,” Giles said. “There is a lot of talk now about the achievement gap that exists nationally between minority and majority students.

“Many of us believe that the achievement gap has to do with the fact that the education provided to minority students has too often not been a nurturing one. It has too often been provided by someone who did not have the best interests of those kids at heart.”

Office staff at the McDowell County Board of Education say the records of Gary District High School are lost. If they were found, Giles believes, a researcher would discover that, before integration, the achievement gap in Gary had nearly closed, at least.

Giles has been principal at Capital High for two years now. A sign on his desk says: “Nothing is impossible.”

“We have 95 teachers and 1,461 students of all colors here,” he said. “This school is a big melting pot and mixing bowl.

“I sometimes wonder where I would be if I had gone to a high school like this,” he said. “I think about that when I look at the kids here. So I do everything I can to push them, to prod them, to encourage them.”

He describes himself as a strict disciplinarian in the tradition of the McDowell County principals. “They were tough because they wanted us to be as good as we could be,” he said. They taught responsibility as well as academics: “If you break rules, there are consequences.”

He likes to quote Capital’s mission statement: “To develop and nurture a community of learners who can live as thoughtful, productive citizens in the 21st century.”

If that philosophy had been in effect in McDowell County during desegregation, he said, “some good things probably could have happened.”

To contact staff writer Kate Long, use e-mail or call 348-1798.

This portrait of desegregation in the Gary area coal camps is part of an ongoing series marking the 50-year anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision to integrate public schools.


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