Forgotten Legacy WWI: Soldiers of the Coalfields

About The Memorial 

The Kimball World War I Memorial was the first memorial in the United States dedicated to African-American WWI veterans. It is now the only such memorial that exists. The location was chosen in part because it was in the heart of a West Virginia African American neighborhood. During World War I, almost 400,000 African-Americans volunteered to fight. McDowell County supplied 1,500 of these fighting units.

For decades, the Kimball War Memorial served as a cultural and social center, serving as a focal point of community life. The memorial was destroyed by deterioration, abandonment, and a fire in 1991. The restoration of the structure was made possible thanks to a mix of state and federal money. The memorial has been repaired and is now available for tours and special occasions.

Although the small hamlet of Kimball in McDowell County, West Virginia may appear an unexpected location for the nation’s only war memorial honoring World War I African American soldiers, there is a narrative to be told. During the summer of 2010, Associate Professor Joel Beeson of West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media and three students began working to document the story and build a public exhibit at the Kimball War Memorial Building. “Forgotten Legacy: Soldiers of the Coalfields” looks at the tale of African Americans who came to McDowell County from the rural South in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and later served in the US military during WWII.

About The Project 

Small town Kimball, West Virginia, may not seem like an obvious spot for the nation’s lone battle memorial honoring WWI African American soldiers, but there is a story worth telling.  A public exhibit at the Kimball War Memorial Building was created by associate professor Joel Beeson and three students over the summer of 2010.  On display at the McDowell County, Historical Society is a story of African Americans who came to McDowell County in the early 1900s to work in coal mines and served in the US military.  In the same way that archaeologists cobble together shards of material culture, pottery, and tools to build a non-linear narrative, we see narrating history as a process. 

Beeson, director of the West Virginia Veterans Oral History Project since 2003, has obtained and edited over 500 photographs, including historic World War I shots and a famous Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee’s socioeconomic survey of McDowell County coal workers. In 2004, while working on his documentary “Fighting on Two Fronts: The Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans,” he met the McDowell County memorial and its board

Beeson proposed a photo show for the memorial to his visual storytelling class in the fall of 2009. What originated as a class project became the “Kimball War Memorial Project.”