Desegregation came in 1954, when West Virginia was less than 100 years old. It was the right and moral thing to do, but it was not done properly, Jackson-Gillison said. Few of those caring, well-educated black teachers and principals were retained to teach in the newly integrated schools. That had an effect on students that is still felt today. Of course, as manufacturing, mining and steel jobs declined, West Virginians, black and white, moved away in search of new opportunities.
So while African-Americans here, like elsewhere, have gained economically and legally, something was lost socially, she said. And then in the next breath she went on: "But, the nice part about it is that you look at the accomplishments that people were able to achieve, coming from the state of West Virginia. Look at the accomplishments. You have about 12 medical doctors from Garnet High School. During segregation. A whole family of doctors. In Weirton, we had great athletes, pro ball players who set records. In the Eastern Panhandle there's Vicky Bullett." The professional basketball player is a descendant of accomplished Hall of Fame members.
"It is our ability to endure and to thrive based on our heritage," Jackson-Gillison said.
"My father worked in a coal mine, but education was primary with him," Jackson-Gillison said. "He had six children, and his goal was to have all six us go to college. It did happen," she said. She has practiced law in Weirton for 35 years, now with her son as a law partner.
I come back to this subject today because this is not a view of our state that we often get -- that so many people, particularly African-Americans -- would view West Virginia as a land of opportunity. It was a place that launched their great-grandparents on careers to California, Texas or right here. That is a thread of our shared story worth knowing.
Going forward, after the speeches and music and after the fireworks die away, when we get back to our day-to-day concerns, I will continue to think about that elderly man on the phone trying to make me see the West Virginia where he grew up. Perhaps those earlier accomplished West Virginians can encourage us, even inspire us as we struggle to better ourselves. Accomplishment can happen here because it has happened here.
"That's beautiful," Jackson-Gillison said. "And it's there. It has always been there."
Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at d...@wvgazette.com.