Soldiers of the Coalfields: The Hidden Stories of Black Appalachians in WWI

Reed College of Media Innovation Center at West Virginia University

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. 

World War Memorial
The Kimball War Memorial was built in 1928 by African American veterans of World War I in the in the heart of the southern coalfields of West Virginia. During the early 20th century, McDowell County had a large black population, many who moved from the South to work in the coal mines during the Great Migration. More than 1500 black soldiers from the region served in the “War to End War” – yet their contribution remains largely forgotten. Over time, the declining coal industry led to shrinking employment, income and population. Deterioration, vandalism and a fire in 1991 left the building a ruin, leaving only an exterior shell. Despite restoration of the structure in 2000, a few scattered documents, un-captioned photographs and fading memories are all that remain.    

Program for "The Colored World War Memorial Building," Saturday, Feb. 11, 1928, included architect, Hassel T. Hicks, Governor H.D. Hatfield, and Capt. G. E. Ferguson, the highest ranking black W.Va. officer in WWI.

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.

List of officers of Post #36 for 1927, the year before the Memorial Building was dedicated.

Letter from Luther Patterson Post to W.E.B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis, the publication of the NAACP, requesting information about the historical numbers of black troops in the armed forces.

Family portrait of Pvt. Carl Bobbit, one of the founders of the Luther Patterson American Legion Post #36 in Kimball, McDowell County, West Virginia. Bobbit operated a coal car in Gary #2 mine.

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.

Honorable discharge from the U.S. Army of Private Harry Irvin Neal, 803rd Pioneer Infantry, World War I. Neal was one of the founding veterans of the Luther Patterson American Legion Post #36.

The 803rd Pioneer Infantry returning from Brest, France aboard the troop ship U.S.S. Philippine.

Honorable Discharge of Thomas Mack, member of Post 36 and a veteran of the Spanish American War, June 1898.

Pvt. Thomas Mack served with the 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Spanish American War with renown black West Point graduate, Col. Charles Young, who became the highest ranking officer in the Army.

The Exhibit: Forgotten Legacy
"Soldiers of the Coalfields," a permanent exhibit at the Kimball War Memorial Building was completed in 2010, using original captions. The narrative of African Americans in WWI is divided into three major sections: Labor, Combat, and Coal & Community
Black troops in WWI were exploited for labor, such as unloading ammunition and food, baking bread, digging trenches and burying the dead.

Detail of Co. A, 321st Labor Battalion, leaving Bazoches, France, to work under direction of Graves Registration officers finding and disposing of bodies left by regimental burial parties in the war.

Skirmish line of Co. A, 321st Labor Battalion, looking for bodies along the Vesles River, near Bazoches, Seine et Oise, France. Stretchers are used to transport bodies to cemetery. White men are NCOs.

Unburied dead along Vesle River near Bazoches. Body was unidentifiable due to corrosion of tags by gas and body juices. No papers were found on the body. It was above ground for three months.

Wrapping body for burial in cemetery. Finely woven, hard burlap is used, as it is more lasting that coarse burlap used for transport. The cemetery is a newly established one at Bazoches, France.

Showing bodies which have been removed and wrapped in burlap being carried to trucks where they are placed in coffins. Romagne and Montfaucon, France.

Trench ready for transfer of bodies to cemetery from field graves in which they were interred by regimental burial squads. Fare en Tardenois, Aisne, France.

Coffiins in trenches some partly covered. Romagne and Montfaucon, France.

Detail of Co. A, 321st labor Battalion filling in trench in which are bodies. Fere en Tardenois, France.

By the end of World War I, African Americans serviced in cavalry, infantry, signal, medical, engineer, and artillery units, as well as roles such as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists, and intelligence officers. When World War I broke out, there were all-black regiments: The 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The combat elements of the U.S. Army were kept completely segregated. The four establishment all-black Regular Army regiments were not used in overseas combat roles but instead were diffused throughout American held territory. There was such a backlash from the African American community, however, that the War Department finally created the 92nd and 93rd Divisions, both primarily black combat units, in 1917. The men in these units were considered heroes in their communities. While the 92nd fought under direct command of the American Expeditionary Forces with mixed results, the 93rd was placed under the French Army whose officers had experience fighting alongside black colonial troops from Africa. They were given French arms and helmets, but wore U.S. uniforms. These soldiers were also highly decorated by the French military. Despite the fact that the French awarded these soldiers numerous unit citations and black soldiers received 171 Legion of Honor medals (the highest military honor in France), it wasn’t until 1991 that Corporal Freddie Stowers was posthumously bestowed the only Medal of Honor awarded to an African American soldier in WWI. 

368th Infantry Battalion of the 92nd Division advancing to the front on camouflaged roads. Binarville, Marne, France.

Testing masks, inspection by gas, 366th Infantry, 3rd Battalion, 92nd Division. Ainvelle, Vosges, France.

Members of the 325th Field Signal Battalion, 92nd Division, stringing wire in no man's land. Binarville, Marne, France.

"Big Nims" with a gas mask. 3rd Battalion, 366th Infantry, 92nd Division. Ainvelle, Vosges, France.

Truck Train of the 365th Infantry, 92nd Division, unloading troops at barracks. Bruyeres, Vosges, France.

German propaganda leaflet dropped on African American troops in France during WWI.

Soldiers of the 370th Infantry Reg. (8th Illinois) decorated for bravery under fire. Left to right: 1st Lt. Wm. J. Warfield, Sgt. Lester Fossie, Pvt. Alonzo Walton. 2nd A.C. near Le Mans, France.

In the early decades of the 20th Century, coal company agents recruited black labor from the South to work in the mines of Appalachia. During the Great Migration, tens of thousands of African Americans moved North in search of a better life.

In the first decades of the 20th Century, the black population of the United States left the South's Jim Crow racism. economic slavery of sharecropping and convict leasing for a better life in the industrial North.

Credits: Story

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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