CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The next time you are down on West Virginia, for whatever reason, think of this.
Several years ago I received a call from a West Virginia expat to let us know about an event: the West Virginia All Black Schools Sports and Academic Hall of Fame, an event started in 2008. I'm sorry to say I've lost the man's name, but his words are still with me.
"You have no idea," he said. West Virginia was a different sort of place. It was different from other states, particularly in the South. African-Americans, like their white counterparts, could find jobs, get a good education, make a livelihood, support their families. He was describing the state as a land of opportunity, relatively open to African-Americans, a less difficult place to live and thrive than elsewhere. Not the way I had grown accustomed to thinking of the state, certainly not the way I thought about the years of segregation.
I've turned the idea over in my mind many times since. It's not the first time I encountered roots of what we would consider modern, enlightened views on equality in West Virginia's past. The state was one of the northern destinations of black Americans who left the South after World War I in search of opportunity. They mined coal, made steel, worked here and built communities, just as they did in Columbus, Detroit and Pittsburgh. I recall from some distant reading that UMW locals were integrated in a society that was segregated. But skeptical and wary of overstating the case for West Virginia's exceptionalism, I called Helen L. Jackson-Gillison, a Weirton lawyer who founded and leads the West Virginia All Black Schools Hall of Fame.
"Does that sound right to you?"
"It absolutely does," she said. That's why she and her colleagues founded the Hall of Fame, to collect and preserve the history and accomplishments of West Virginia's former black schools and their graduates.
Look at Garnet High School in Charleston, she said. Garnet produced about 15 MDs, 15 to 30 JDs and more than 30 PhDs. All during segregation, before more recent civil rights legislation. And there were accomplishments like that all over the state. "We were achievers, and we were taught to be achievers."
"Back in that day, we had teachers who were like parents," she said. "They knew everything that went on with their students. They made sure we had a proper education."