Housed in the Kimball War Memorial in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, this exhibit explores the hidden story of African Americans who migrated to McDowell County from the rural South in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and who served in the U.S. military in World War One.
The Ferguson brothers of Charleston, West Virginia in uniform. Capt. Guenette Ferguson, center, was the highest ranking black officer from the state. He was commissioned as captain and sent to Camp Grant, Ill., where he trained Company M., 365th (Colored) Infantry. His unit went overseas, but Captain Ferguson remained in America to defend some African American soldiers who were involved in legal charges. His conduct of the case won for him commendation by General Martin of the Army. Ferguson later went to France on a transport carrying 1,700 solders. He was the ranking officer on board and was in command of the troops, which was significant, as he was the only African American officer who commanded a transport.
His brother, Lt. Daniel L. Ferguson II, left, enlisted in the army as a private in October 30, 1917, in the Engineer's Training Battalion, located at Camp Lee, Virginia. Shortly after arriving at Camp Lee, Ferguson was subjected to prejudice and discrimination, and protested, resulting in his transfer. Not only did Ferguson stand up to oppression, but he set a precedence for other African American soldiers to became vocal about mistreatment.
His outspokenness and the other men’s threats to transfer afforded African Americans better treatment at Camp Lee. Daniel Ferguson was promoted to corporal after being transferred to Camp Grant, Illinois., where his brother, Captain G. E. Ferguson, was in command of Company M., 365th African American (Colored) Infantry. He was assigned to Company F of the same regiment and later transferred to Fourth Officers Training School at Camp Dodge in Iowa.
Ferguson qualified for Machine Gun Training School and was sent to Camp Hancock, Georgia, where he was trained and received his certificate as instructor. On September 15, 1918, he was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant and graduated with honors at the head of his class, with the highest general average in work and theory. He was put in command of 84th Company, 7th Group, M. T. D., which position he held until he was discharged from the service on January 6, 1919. Ferguson returned to West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, and he resumed his work there as chair of Economics and Sociology. He also served as Dean of College, as well as Professor of Sociology in the Collegiate Institute and Special Extension Agent for both the Institute and West Virginia University.
Group portrait of the veterans who were among the founding officers of American Legion Post #36 housed in the Kimball War Memorial Building. The Post was named after Luther Patterson, one of the first black soldiers from the community to die in the war. Back row, from left: Dr. J. S. Cardwell, a McDowell County dentist, Carl Bobbit, motorman in Gary #2 coal mine, [unidentified], [unidentified], Fleming A. Jones Jr., attorney and state legislator, Q. A. Connolly, post historian and professor at Bluefield State College. Front row, from left: Rev. Alex Gregory, chaplain and pastor of the Rock Hill Baptist Church in Gary, Robert "Bob" Robinson, night watchman at U.S. Steel coal plant and, as such, Gary's "policeman." R.E. Black, post commander, and James A. Shelton, teacher and principal at Welch Dunbar Elementary School in McDowell County.
Portrait of Private Harry Irvin Neal, who served with the 803rd Pioneer Infantry in France. Neal was one of the original 16 veterans who went to the McDowell County Court to request funds to build a "Colored World War Memorial" building for black veterans because they were barred from membership in the local white-only American Legion posts in the county.
Curator: Joel Beeson
Drone Photography: Tyler Channel
Designer: Dana Coester
Production Assistance: Brianna Swisher-Robinson and Emily Pelland
Special Thanks to Ellis Ray Williams, Patricia Williams, Cill Thompson
Photographs courtesy National Archives and Records Adminstration, West Virginia State Archives, The Kimball War Memorial and the Williams Family Collection