Black Diamonds of West Virginia

A History of Our Civil Rights Leaders

First up is J.R. Clifford, West Virginia’s first Black attorney out of Martinsburg, WV.

He was a newspaper publisher (Pioneer Press, the longest-running Black newspaper), editor and writer, school teacher and principal. He was a Civil War veteran and a grandfather, as well as a civil rights pioneer and founding member of the Niagara Movement (forerunner to the NAACP).

Next up in the series is Robert Simmons.

A free black man during the days of slavery, he moved to Parkersburg in 1841 and earned a living as a barber. He and his wife Sarah worried that their nine children wouldn’t receive a proper education.

In 1862, he and other free black men established Sumner School in Parkersburg. Sumner was the first school for African American children in present-day West Virginia and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.Shortly after the school’s founding, Simmons traveled through war-torn Virginia to meet with Abraham Lincoln in Washington.

The president authorized the use of a rundown army barracks to serve as the Sumner school building. Sumner would later establish the first black high school department in West Virginia, which remained open until segregation ended in the 1950s.

Simmons was also a leading African American voice in the Republican Party, twice serving as a state delegate to national conventions. He even turned down an offer from President Ulysses S. Grant to be U.S. consul to Haiti. Today, Parkersburg’s downtown post office is named in honor of Robert Simmons.

He was also an editor and contributor for the Pioneer Press (established by J.R. Clifford). The Pioneer Press was critical of the Republican Party for not doing enough after emancipation for Blacks in the south. This is the history that is hidden and stolen from us.

Onto Rev. Leon Sullivan: a Baptist minister, a civil rights leader and social activist focusing on the creation of job training opportunities for African Americans. He was also a longtime General Motors Board Member and an anti-Apartheid activist.

The seeds of Sullivan’s activism were planted as a child when he was denied the right to have a soda and sit at a counter in a drug store on Charleston’s Capitol Street. It was then that he decided he would stand up for what he believed in and the people he believed in.

Sullivan received many honors during his lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest award that can be bestowed upon a civilian — from President George H.W. Bush in 1992. He also received the Four Freedoms Award from the Roosevelt Institute and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights presented by President Bill Clinton. In 2000, Charleston’s Broad Street was renamed Leon Sullivan Way. WVSU’s Sullivan Hall is also named in his honor.

Learn more about Rev Leon H. Sullivan here:

I cannot exclude John H. Brown. When we rank accomplices at levels there are kin, accomplice and murder hornet. Brown was definitely on murder hornet level of accomplice-ship.

John H. Brown was an American abolitionist leader. Brown felt that violence was necessary to end American slavery — as years of speeches, sermons, petitions and moral persuasion had failed. A religious man more than anything else, Brown believed he was raised up by God to strike the death blow to American slavery.

In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south through the mountainous regions of Virginia and North Carolina; he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about. He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but very few slaves joined his revolt. Within 36 hours, those of Brown’s men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.

Brown said repeatedly that all of his anti-slavery activities, both in Kansas and Harpers Ferry, were following the Golden Rule. He said the most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal— “meant the same thing.”

John Brown had southerners SHOOK. There was fear that others would be inspired to follow in his footsteps: encouraging, arming and inciting rebellions against slavery.

Union soldiers — including the soldiers who fought against the confederacy in VA (soon to be WV) — and newly freed blacks marched to a new song, “John Browns Body,” which portrayed him as a martyr, Saint and hero.

Next up? Carter G. Woodson. According to the NAACP’s history, “[he] was a scholar whose dedication to celebrating the historic contributions of Black people led to the establishment of Black History Month, marked every February since 1976. Woodson fervently believed that Black people should be proud of their heritage and all Americans should understand the largely overlooked achievements of Black Americans.”

You can learn more by visiting:

Onto Elizabeth Simpson Drewry. In 1950, she became the first Black woman to be elected to WV Legislature. Drewry served 8 terms in the House of Delegates.

Born September 22, 1893, in Motley, Virginia, she was the eldest of 10 children. Her family moved when she was a child. Drewry’s family was part of the earliest generation of the Great Migration.

Drewry began as a teacher in Black schools in the coal camps along Elkhorn Creek and later taught in McDowell County black public school system. Elizabeth first entered into politics as a Republican precinct poll worker in 1921 and 1935 before she switched her party affiliation to Democrat and became involved in the WV Federation of Teachers.

In 1956, @ebonymagazine honored Drewry as one of the ten outstanding Black women in government.

Elizabeth Harden Gilmore (August 11, 1910 – April 8, 1986) was an African-American funeral director and civil rights activist from Charleston.

Gilmore was raised by her grandmother, following the death of her mother when Gilmore was only eleven months old. She graduated from Garnet High School and attended West Virginia State College (now University) and Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College. She became the first African-American woman licensed as a funeral director in West Virginia and the first woman licensed as a funeral director in Kanawha County.

Gilmore co-founded Harden-Harden Funeral Home with her first husband, Silas Harden. Beginning in 1947, Harden-Harden operated at 514 Broad Street (now 514 Leon Sullivan Way) on Charleston’s East End. This location, which also served as Gilmore’s residence, is known today as the Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House or Minotti-Gilmore House and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Silas Harden died in 1946. In 1949, Elizabeth married Virgil Gilmore, a future two-term Charleston city councilman.

In 1958, she was among the first organizers of the Charleston chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the first — and at the time, only –CORE chapter in the state. She served as executive secretary for the local chapter.

With CORE, Gilmore participated in several boycotts and sit-in demonstrations challenging racial discrimination. Most notable was a two-year boycott of the Diamond Department Store, which led to the store integrating its lunch counter on May 3, 1960.

CORE advocated for a public swimming pool in South Charleston in response to segregation at Rock Lake Pool. In 1964, during Senator Barry Goldwater’s visit to the Charleston Civic Center, CORE sponsored a show at Charleston’s Municipal Auditorium headlined by African-American comedian and Goldwater critic Dick Gregory.

(History found on:

One of, if not the most, important women in WV history is Memphis Tennessee Garrison. She is someone I’ve been very moved to include in this series as she sent textbooks to Africa, shed light on the desegregation movement and worked with children others considered a lost cause.

Garrison was an activist for African Americans and young women during the Jim Crow Era in rural West Virginia. Garrison was a McDowell County teacher and community mediator, famous for organizing West Virginia’s third chapter of the Gary Branch of the NAACP in 1921. Additionally, from 1931-1946, Garrison was the community mediator for U.S. Steel Gary Mines. Some of Garrison’s other notable achievements range from establishing the Gary Branch of the NAACP to organizing Girl Scout troops for African American girls, and creating a breakfast program for impoverished students during the Great Depression to finally creating the “Negro Artist Series.”

You can read more about Tennessee Memphis Garrison in the book Memphis Tennessee Garrison: The Remarkable Story of a Black Appalachian Woman.

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