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Charleston remembers ‘The Block,’ the heart of its black community

By Lydia Nuzum, Staff writer
KENNY KEMP | Sunday Gazette-Mail
“The Block,” a section of downtown Charleston, was the heart of the city’s black community during segregation. On Saturday, West Virginia’s capital city commemorated May 24 as “The Block Historic District Day.”

Three bricks were placed along the sidewalk at the corner of Shrewsbury and Washington Streets in Charleston on Saturday afternoon, each etched with the name and likeness of a building that once stood there.

One, the Ferguson Hotel, was the city’s first black hotel and featured a convention hall, billiards room and swimming pool. Another brick showed the Brown Building, which housed numerous businesses during its existence, and the original First Baptist Church, demolished in the 1950s.

The three bricks are part of the historical foundation of “The Block,” which was the heart of Charleston’s black community, filled with people leaving the South in search of industrial jobs in states like West Virginia. The Block, a 25-acre area bound by Washington Street East, Capitol Street, Smith Street and Sentz Court, has a wealth of history that needs to be preserved, according to Anthony Kinzer, director of the West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture.

“The history of The Block touches my heart, and it’s why I still do this,” Kinzer said. 

Kinzer and others have worked for the last five years to get recognition for The Block’s historical significance. In 2011, it was placed on the Charleston Historic Landmarks Commission’s local register of historic places, and on Saturday, the site’s new informational markers, which tell a brief history of the area, were dedicated during a ceremony for those who remember the neighborhood fondly.

“We were safe, and it was a beautiful area where everybody was your protector, and friends and family looked after one another,” said Chlorine Carter, a board member for the West Virginia Center for African American Art & Culture. 

Carter graduated from Garnet High School, the city’s black high school during segregation, in 1953, one year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down de jure school segregation in Brown v. the Board of Education. Garnet closed as a high school in 1956, and now serves as the Garnet Career Center. 

Despite attending a segregated school, Carter said that her days growing up on The Block meant playing with other children across the neighborhood, whether they were white, black, Greek, Syrian or Lebanese. According to Carter, The Block’s racial and cultural inclusiveness is part of what made it a special neighborhood, and one worth remembering.

“Everybody participated in keeping the kids engaged and making sure there was something to do,” she said. “With segregation, it was something that just happened. It was part of every day life; it was something that just occurred, and our lives continued. We lived in a mixed community, and we were friends with kids in the community. We liked our school, and nothing was too different until summer came, when we had to separate and go back to school in the fall.”

Roger Walker, nicknamed “Hawk,” can remember everything as it was around “Hawk’s Hangout” — where the pharmacy had been, where Preston Funeral Home was first built before it was destroyed by fire and where a nearby daycare center had once stood. Walker, 82, retired as building maintenance supervisor of Charleston City Hall in 1998, after 25 years. He said he even remembers helping to lay the foundation of the new First Baptist Church in 1957.

“It’s really wonderful to see this,” Walker said. “I feel very fortunate to be around; I had a stroke and a triple bypass, and my late wife passed in 2002, but we raised three kids, and I have eight grand kids and 12 great-grand kids.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Mayor Danny Jones issued statements declaring May 24 The Block Historic District Day. Kinzer said he hopes to have the three bricks installed on the sidewalks in front of where each structure once stood, and believes preserving community history is as important for the next generation as it was for the previous one.

“History is being made every minute of every day somewhere, and the question is, who is recording that history? You have history that’s not being recorded,” Kinzer said. “In your house, in your family — write it down. Tell someone about it, so that your kids know about your grandparents, about their grandparents, and about their parents. That’s what we’re doing today — passing the history down.” 

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189. 


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