Celebrating Influential Black West Virginians

As we celebrate Black History Month, here are some of the most influential Black West Virginians, according to information provided by the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History:

Mildred Mitchell-Bateman — She was the first Black woman to head a West Virginia state government agency. Born in Brunswick, Georgia, she came to West Virginia in 1946 as a staff physician at Lakin State Hospital for the mentally ill. Mitchell married William L. Bateman of Parkersburg on Christmas Day, 1947. She left Lakin to practice medicine privately and study psychiatry. Mitchell- Bateman returned to Lakin as the hospital’s clinical director in 1955. Three years later, she was promoted to superintendent of the hospital. In 1960, Mitchell-Bateman was named supervisor of professional services for the state Department of Mental Health. In 1962, Gov. Wallace Barron named her director, the first Black woman to lead a West Virginia state agency.

J. R. Clifford — A journalist, lawyer, and civil rights leader, Clifford was born in 1848 in present-day Grant County. After serving during the Civil War, Clifford attended a writing school in Wheeling and then began teaching others to write. In 1882, Clifford established the Pioneer Press, the state’s first Black newspaper. The Pioneer Press remained one of the most respected black newspapers in the nation until it was closed by the federal government in 1917, due to Clifford’s editorial criticisms of the United States’ involvement in World War I. Some of Clifford’s most important contributions were in the field of law. In 1887 became the first Black man to pass the West Virginia bar examination. He argued two landmark cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In the area of civil rights, Clifford worked with his friend, W. E. B. Du Bois, to found the Niagara Movement in 1905. The Niagara Movement developed to counter Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of working within the existing system to achieve gradual civil rights advancement.

John W. Davis — As president of West Virginia State College starting in 1919, this Georgia native became one of the nation’s most distinguished educators and earliest civil rights leaders. During Davis’ tenure, the school became one of the leading Black colleges in the country in both academics and athletics. In 1927, West Virginia Collegiate Institute became the first all-black school to be accredited by the North Central Association of College and Secondary Schools. In 1929, the school’s name was changed to West Virginia State College and began conferring college degrees.

Elizabeth Simpson Drewry — She was the first Black woman elected to the West Virginia Legislature, as in 1950 McDowell County voters sent her to the Legislature. Her career began as a teacher in the Black schools of coal camps along Elkhorn Creek in 1910. Drewry received a degree from Bluefield State College in 1933. In 1948, she ran for the House of Delegates for the first time, but was defeated in the primary. She won a seat two years later and served for 13 years. While she wasn’t the first Black woman in the Legislature — that honor goes to Minnie Buckingham Harper, who was appointed to succeed her husband in 1927 — she was the first Black woman elected.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. — A renowned black literary scholar and chair of Harvard University’s African-American Studies Department, Gates, of Mineral County, was one of the first Black students to attend the newly desegregated public schools in his county following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Gates later attended Potomac State College and then went to study at Yale and earned his doctoral degree from Cambridge University in England. Gates served in the campaign of Jay Rockefeller in his unsuccessful bid against incumbent Governor Arch Moore in 1972. After the campaign, he worked for Time magazine in London before returning to Yale to teach black studies and English. In the late 1980s, Gates taught at Cornell University. In 1991, Gates was named chair of Harvard University’s African-American Studies Department. In 1994, Gates’ award-winning book “Colored People” was published, chronicling his youth and the black community in Mineral County.

Hal Greer — A Huntington native, he was the first Black West Virginian to be enshrined into a major sports Hall of Fame. He was born in Huntington on June 26, 1936, and was a basketball standout at Frederick Douglass High School. In 1955, coaching legend Cam Henderson recruited Greer to attend Marshall College. Greer became the first Black person to play for a major college team in the state. During his 15 years in the NBA, he was a 10-time All-Star and, in 1967, Greer’s Philadelphia 76ers team, led by Wilt Chamberlain, ended the Boston Celtics’ streak of eight consecutive championships. He was elected to the Naismith Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in 1981.

Christopher Payne — Born in Monroe County, Virginia, in 1848, Payne was elected to the Legislature from Fayette County in 1896. He was a pioneer in the field of black journalism and established three newspapers — the West Virginia Enterprise, The Pioneer, and the Mountain Eagle. He also represented the state’s Third Congressional District at the National Republican Convention on three occasions. Payne was rewarded for his service to the party with appointments to various positions within the U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue. He studied law and was admitted to the bar while working at the bureau. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt named Payne as Consul General to the Danish West Indies (present-day Virgin Islands).

Samuel W. Starks — As a national leader of the Black Knights of Pythias fraternal order, this Charleston native led an important social organization for Black people. Starks was grand chancellor of the state organization from the time of its inception. He became the national vice chancellor in 1897 and national supreme chancellor in 1901. The order’s national membership grew from 9,000 to 146,869 under Starks’ leadership as supreme chancellor. In Charleston, Starks, along with barber James Hazelwood and lawyer Phil Waters, became significant players in the Republican party. For his efforts, Starks was named state librarian by Gov. A.B. White in 1901.

Booker T. Washington — A noted educator and first president of Tuskegee Institute, Washington lived briefly in Kanawha County to work at the salt furnaces. In 1872, Washington began attending the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. He returned to West Virginia to teach school for both Black children and adults. During this time, Washington became recognized as an eloquent speaker and a leader in the Black community. In 1878, Washington left the state and only returned occasionally to visit family. In 1881, he was chosen to direct a new normal school for Blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. Under Washington’s leadership, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute became one of the leading Black educational institutions in the country. At a time when many Black leaders rejected the laws and traditions which discriminated against Black people, Washington spoke in favor of cooperation. Washington’s visit to the White House in 1901 further angered radical civil rights leaders. To counter Washington’s philosophy, Du Bois, J. R. Clifford, and others formed the Niagara Movement. Washington presided over Tuskegee Institute until his death on November 14, 1915. He wrote twelve books, the most famous of which, “Up From Slavery” recounted his early life in Malden. Washington remains one of the most respected yet controversial leaders in Black history.


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