The Community Coalition for Social Justice hosted our 17th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event on January 16th, with financial support of the City of Morgantown. We started this program to provide a free family-friendly program for the community.
Our theme this year was “Telling West Virginia’s Stories and Dreams.”
Morgantown Mayor Jenny Selin welcomed everyone, and Jeremy Thomas was our master of ceremonies. He conducted an interview with Osage resident Al Anderson, former Morgantown Mayor Charlene Marshall, and his great-aunt Sarah Little, who shared stories of growing up on Scotts Run and attending segregated schools.
All agreed that Black and white children played together and, as Al remembered, were in and out of each other’s homes all the time so that Charlene did not remember segregation until she got to Morgantown. Still, they remembered that, in Pursglove, Black families lived on one side of the hill, and white families lived on the other side.
Sarah recalled that when she got to be 15 years old, her best childhood friend, who was white, could no longer be her friend. Sarah’s mother had to explain to her that there was nothing wrong with Sarah that caused the break.
The three shared stories about attending segregated schools and that they did not have the equipment white schools had. “You could tell the books were passed down.” Sarah remembered getting “second-class books” with missing pages. When comparing stories with white friends, she knew they did not learn the same things that their white friends learned.
Al remembered that they did not have enough books for every student so that, if you were a slower reader, the person with whom you were sharing might be turning the page before you were finished. He also remembered the teachers were preparing them for “this hard world you were going to be in.” By the time you finished sixth grade, you knew how to read, write, and count, and, “if you were not smart enough” to be at Monongalia High School, you were going to go back.
Sarah never remembered learning that “Black people did great things” or anything about Black history, and, while Charlene learned about Carter Woodson, the father of black history week, she did not learn he had a West Virginia connection.
When Charlene got to Monongalia High School, the high school for African American students in Monongalia County, there were no typing classes available for students. Eventually, students could go to Morgantown High School after school for typing, where classes also were open to adults. She had a job after school so could not take those classes. She also was a member of the NHA, the official acronym for New Homemakers of America, while white students belonged to FHA – Future Homemakers of America. Boys belonged to the NFA – New Farmers of America. Charlene then realized that “N” was not really for “New.”
“After you begin to pay attention to those things, then it bothers you,” she said.
Charlene also noted that the swimming pool in Pursglove was segregated. The United Mine Workers of America paid for the pool, but the white children swam in the morning and African American children in the afternoon. African American children from Morgantown also came out to use the pool, and Charlene said people joked that the segregation was so that white children did not have to be in the water after the African American children were there.
Morgantown musician Chris Haddox, above. Top: Al Anderson. Below: The WVU Community Choir
Music is always an important part of our program.
This year, Al Anderson sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot.” Morgantown musician Chris Haddox sang “Welcome Table” and his original song “We Are All Children Of God.” The WVU Community Choir under the direction of Dr. Kym Scott sang “I Dream a World,” with words by Langston Hughes and music by André J. Thomas.
Jeremy read “Counting on Katherine,” a children’s book about Katherine Johnson, West Virginia’s “hidden figure” and NASA mathematician who graduated from then-segregated West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University), attended West Virginia University, and taught at Monongalia High School. The NASA Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility in Fairmont is named for her.
Master of ceremonies Jeremy Thomas read the book “Counting on Katherine.”
The Morgantown-Kingwood Branch of the NAACP has been a partner in this program since 2018. This year, the branch invited NAACP member Dr. Joseph Jones, visiting assistant professor at the WVU Reed College of Media, whose specialty is media ethics and law, to speak. His topic was “Communities of Care: West Virginia and a Civic Identity for the 21st Century.” He asked, “what does it mean to be a West Virginian?” and “who gets to decide who counts as a West Virginian?”
Since each of us experiences the benefits of citizenship in unique ways, how do we build larger communities of belonging? Each of us has a history, and all of us require other people in our lives. “To learn who we are today, we must learn about the histories of these institutions” like families, schools, and religious organizations, including “who had the power to determine what was normal and acceptable in these institutions.”
Dr. King asked who had the power to distribute resources and who was excluded, marginalized, or harmed by these institutions. We can define race as the “social meaning given to skin color and physical characteristics.” As white people tried to classify people by race, racism came to mean “discrimination/unfair treatment based on skin color and a system of power.”
Dr. Jones then noted the development of chattel slavery, which was a part of West Virginia’s history, and reviewed the institutional racism in the state that included segregated schools and that African Americans were excluded from the New Deal community of Arthurdale in Preston County. The media plays a role when describing the same incident by Black and white people with different words.
He also noted the fact that Black students are suspended from schools at twice the rate of white students, an issue that is much under discussion in the state today. Dr. Jones concluded that expanding our notions of citizenship can help us address the problems of institutional racism by seeking solidarity or unity and by creating caring communities with the civic virtues of attentiveness, empathy, and responsiveness.
We traditionally close our program with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sung this year by WVU music faculty member Dr. Hope Koehler, and with a recording of the Boston Children’s Choir singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Amy Loomis of Main Street Morgantown helped publicize the event; we have co-sponsored this event with Main Street Morgantown since 2011.
Our event was virtual this year with the support of Jascenna Haislet, Michelle Klishis, and Diane Cale of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at West Virginia University. Watch a video of the program at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KazLJyb_G-g
For more information on the Community Coalition for Social Justice, please go to www.ccsjwv.org or email email@example.com.