“Cap” Ferguson: A Black Trailblazer
By Maria Sisco and
“Cap” Ferguson was born at Edgewater in Fayette County on October 17, 1888, the son of Daniel and Sarah Elizabeth Eddens Ferguson. His full given name was Gurnett Ferguson. However, when enlisting in the Army, Cap was told he needed a middle name. According to a family story, he perused a map of the world, looked toward Europe, and randomly picked a middle name-Edinburgh.
Cap spent most of his younger years growing up in West Dunbar, just west of Charleston, and graduated from Garnet High School and the normal school of West Virginia Collegiate Institute — now West Virginia State University — in 1912. He taught school for several years in Fayette County and Huntington.
In 1914, he married Lily Foster. They remained together more than 60 years, until her death in 1975.
While training to become a teacher, he began dabbling in real estate, later recalling, “In June 1912, I didn’t have $5. I remember that because I got in on a real estate deal with three others and $20 was needed for an option. I didn’t have my share, but we succeeded in having the option reduced to $15.”
All photos courtesy of Maria Sisco unless noted otherwise.
(L-R) Brothers and World War I veterans Cap, Daniel, and William Ferguson, 1918.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Cap was assigned to the 17th Provisional Training Regiment at Fort Des Moines, Iowa — the first site ever designated by the U.S. military specifically for training black officers. After three months of training in Iowa, Cap was commissioned as one of 105 African-American captains. At the same time, two other graduates of the West Virginia Collegiate Institute Normal School were commissioned second lieutenants at Fort Des Moines: Lafayette Campbell and Norwood Fairfax. Cap’s brother Daniel, later to become a dean at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute and introduce the school’s ROTC program, was in the second class of cadets at Fort Des Moines. Another brother, William, also served in the war.
Cap spent four months in basic training at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, and became captain of Company M of the 365th Infantry, part of the all-Black 92nd Division. According to family tradition, he was once commended by his division’s commanding general, Charles “Iron Pants” Martin-who was openly racist toward most of his soldiers — for defending a group of African-American soldiers from damaging accusations that would have destroyed their lives. In summer 1918, Cap led an all-Black 1,700-troop transport across the Atlantic. As ranking officer aboard the ship, he became the only African-American to command a transport during the war, earning him the lifelong nickname “Cap.” Throughout his life, Cap Ferguson achieved his goals, regardless of the odds, and fought even harder when the odds were against him. So, his commanding presence certainly must have had a profound impact on the young soldiers who served with him.
Few specifics are known of Cap’s time in Europe due to the fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in 1973. In the latter weeks of the war, the 365th was actively involved in the fighting in the Vosges Mountains. The French awarded the entire regiment the Croix de Guerre. For years afterward, Cap spoke fondly of his time in Europe and returned home with beautiful fabrics and gifts for his Lily. He was a very civic-minded man who, in 1919, founded the first African American American Legion post in West Virginia and was a founding member of the state’s Veterans of Foreign War.
After World War I, there were about 5,000 African Americans in Charleston — iving almost entirely in a segregated world. Cap realized that Charleston’s Black community desperately needed quality businesses of its own. His brilliant idea was to build a magnificent business complex in the traditionally African American section on the north end of the downtown. The nucleus of his Ferguson Business Center was the Ferguson Hotel.
Cap was inspired by his own experience of not being able to find an available room in New York City: “You know, a colored man who wants good lodgings has a difficult time when he is traveling. I spent an hour and a half in a taxi in New York city looking for a place to stop. I didn’t want to go to a cheap, unattractive and unsanitary colored lodging house and there was no good colored hotel.”
The Ferguson Hotel, which opened in 1922, took up an entire city block bounded by Washington, Sentz, Lewis, and Broad (now Leon Sullivan Way) streets. It cost some $200,000 to build, included 72 rooms, and quickly attracted other black businesses to the area. It was designed by West Virginia’s first licensed black architect, John C. Norman of Charleston, and built by Charleston contractor J. H. Love. A local black newspaper said the Ferguson was “one of the foremost most modern and elaborately furnished and equipped hotels catering to Negro patronage around the country.”
Since other large hotels were segregated, the Ferguson became the staying place of choice for African Americans passing through Charleston. Many famous people stayed there and appeared in either the hotel’s night club or theater — Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Joe Louis, to name a few. The hotel also was home to a movie theater, a dance hall, barber and beauty shops, a restaurant, a poolroom, and business offices.
Cap explained his approach to business in a 1922 newspaper article, “You see, everything is interlocking. Whenever there is a dance here, the dancers step right through this door to the to the moving picture show or to the poolroom. A man comes to play pool, gets hungry and goes to the cafe. If he needs a shave, he goes to the barber shop.”
Even with so many businesses, though, Cap knew he couldn’t make the equivalent of white business people: “Now I can follow the white hotel men so far, but then I have to stop and pioneer for myself. I have to meet the problem of giving the best service for a smaller amount than the white hotels receive. A colored man cannot afford to pay as much as a white man, generally speaking.”
Because Cap’s vast businesses were under one roof, he was able to keep his costs reasonable and his rooms affordable. He emphasized business accountability, saying, “Each department of my business is run separately, just as if they did not all belong to the same man. The hotel, for instance, cannot take a dustcloth from the cafe unless it pays for it. In that way I am able to keep a check on each department and see just how each is paying.”
He also understood the importance of a strong Black middle class and gave his managers incentives: “I have a manager in charge of each department. I pay him a small salary and I allow him a certain percentage of the proceeds of his department. In this way I encourage them to do their best and make them feel just as if they were in business.”
The Ferguson, which opened in Charleston in 1922, was described by a local paper as “one of the foremost most modern and elaborately furnished and equipped hotels catering to Negro patronage around the country.”
The Ferguson was also the social center of African American Charleston. Along with an ad-joining row of businesses along Shrewsbury Street owned by Anderson H. Brown, this area is still remembered affectionately as “The Block.”
Cap Ferguson held many positions in his fight for racial equality. He joined with attorney and former legislator T.G. Nutter and other civil rights leaders to help block the screening of the controversial film Birth of a Nation at Charleston’s Rialto Theatre in 1925. He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), director of the state Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics during the early years of the Great Depression, and a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Relations. He also was an unsuccessful candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates, an alternate delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1940 and 1948, a 33rd Degree Mason and Shriner, and a board member for the original Charleston Civic Center.
Even with all of his success, Cap continued to give back to the community and his family. In 1918, he donated land to build Dunbar’s Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church, with his mother, Sarah Elizabeth Ferguson, as a trustee. He commissioned a monument to Booker T. Washington, a distant relative, in Malden, Washington’s childhood home east of Charleston. Due to recurrences of vandalism, the monument was later rededicated and is now on the State Capitol grounds.
He also was a prominent real-estate developer in Dunbar and Institute. In particular, Dunbar’s Pinewood Park expanded suburban living opportunities for people of color. He and his wife, Lily, moved to Pinewood when their new home was completed about 1960. Ferguson provided his family and their friends with a summer home on Elk River, just outside of Ivydale in Clay County. This place, simply called “The Camp,” offered the Fergusons a rural retreat during summers. It featured well water, an outhouse, no television, and no telephones but lots of swimming, boating, card playing, horseshoe pitching, laughing, and singing.
But things were not all smooth sailing for Cap and his enterprises. Early in his business career, he had plans to build a chain of hotels across the country to serve people of color. He soon met resistance, though. In 1927, creditors filed a lawsuit against Cap, and Circuit Court Judge Arthur P. Hudson ordered him to sell the Ferguson. The sale never occurred, and the Ferguson lived on for nearly four more decades.
Cap Ferguson having dinner with his wife, Lily, in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Years later, as Charleston’s downtown expanded, Cap was approached over and over again to sell his hotel, which was on prime real estate. He refused each time, concerned less about his income and more about not displacing the residents who’d lived there for years. On March 26, 1966, a mysterious fire broke out in the hotel’s attic. Although the blaze was brought under control, the smoke and water damage were extensive, so he sold the property. The site soon became the Heart-o-Town Motor Inn (later part of the Holiday Inn chain). A few years later, he was approached about selling his Elk River camp. Again, he refused, and The Camp was burned to the ground. The only thing left in the wake of the fire was the fireplace. Understandably saddened and angered by the incident, Cap’s family and friends went to The Camp, retrieved bricks from the fireplace, and distributed them to family members.
It’s difficult to imagine all the roadblocks Cap Ferguson faced — from the Great War to racism in his hometown, but none of that ever depleted his fighting spirit for good or his strong convictions toward equality and peace. During the 1950s, even as the integration of public places meant a decline in his own businesses, he worked resolutely with fellow Republican, Governor Cecil Underwood, to end segregation and promote equality.
Cap retired when he was in his 70s. One day, Cap ran into a reporter downtown who asked how retirement was going. Cap replied, “The doctor says I’ll make it ’til tomorrow.”
Turns out, he had many tomorrows left. Gurnett Edinburgh “Cap” Ferguson died in a St. Louis hospital the day after Christmas in 1982 at the age of 94. He’s buried beside Lily at Tyler Mountain Memorial Gardens in Kanawha County. The Ferguson Hotel is still a memory of pride and historical benefit. Equal rights in the Mountain State are now more front and center in our society-in part because of Cap Ferguson’s dedication. He had the courage to be different and go through uncharted waters. Captain G .E. “Cap” Ferguson, a man before his time and a most extraordinary man indeed.
MARIA SISCO was born and raised in Charleston-one of Gurnett and Lily Ferguson’s 15 grandchildren. A West Virginia State University alumnus and member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, she resides in the Kanawha Valley with Cap’s sole surviving daughter, retired educator Barbara Sisco-Hill, who she cares for along with her daughters Jerrica and Jessica, and her “dad,” James “Butch” Hill. This is her first contribution to GOLDENSEAL.
STAN BUMGARDNER is the editor of GOLDENSEAL.
Goldenseal, the magazine of West Virginia traditional life, is produced by the Department of Arts, Culture and History and takes its stories from the recollections of West Virginians living throughout the state.
At the site where The Ferguson once stood, there’s a commemorative tile. Find it with the help of Clio
John C. Norman, Sr.
The Ferguson Hotel was designed by John Clavon Norman, Sr., West Virginia’s first licensed Black architect. Norman designed many buildings in Charleston and the Kanawha Valley, including the old Staats Hospital, structures on the campus of West Virginia State College (now University), and homes in the West Side and South Hills sections of town.
By Anthony Kinzer
The Ferguson Hotel was the social and economic center of the African American business section of Charleston, known affectionately as “The Block.” It embodied many facets within and around a supportive community.
The Block — an extended area bounded byWashington, Shrewsbury, Lewis (now John Norman), and Broad (now Leon Sullivan Way) streets — was a hub of activity that reached beyond Charleston. It wasn’t just the business entities that tied together this tight-knit community; the people who lived in this area were connected by similar motivational schooling, religious teachings, and social factors that led to lasting friendships.
Very little remains of The Block these days. Only a few architectural remnants are left of this once-bustling neighborhood: Garnet High School (now Garnet Career Center), A. H. Brown Building, First Baptist and Simpson Memorial United Methodist churches, Preston Funeral Home, Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House and Samuel W. Starks Home — Starks was the first AfricanAmerican in the nation to serve as a state librarian. Most of the other buildings in the area fell victim to Charleston’s urban renewal effort of the 1960s.
The Block encouraged individuals to make their mark on the world and to work hard for better living conditions for themselves, their families, and their community. It created a sense of pride and confidence for these folks to know they could make a difference, regardless of the circumstances of their lives. The things they learned and accomplished on The Block gave rise to a strong black middle class, and the name “The Block” still brings a tear to the eye along with a smile to those who grew up there.
Since so few original buildings in The Block remain, the district is ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places. However, in 2011, the Charleston Historic Landmarks Commission named the area to its local district of historic places.
ANTHONY KINZER is director of the West Virginia Center for AfricanAmerican Art & Culture. He played a leading role in getting The Block recognized by the Charleston Historic Landmarks Commission.