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African-American history exhibit opens at the Cultural Center

The West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History has opened a new exhibit, Preservation and Re-Discovery–African-American History in West Virginia, in the Art Gallery of the Cultural Center, State Capitol Complex, Charleston, in celebration of Black History Month. The free exhibit will remain on display through March 13 2005.

The exhibit spotlights African-American history in Jefferson County as documented by the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society in Charles Town and other areas of the state, and concentrates on education, publications, slavery and the John Brown raid, military service, and church and lodge.

The education component of the exhibit focuses on black schools and includes photographs of educators, students and schools. An eight-minute video, “Education and The Birthday Basket” is also on display which includes a message by Dr. Richard I. McKinney, last president of Storer College in Harpers Ferry. Storer College was founded by Free Will Baptists, aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau and a challenge grant from John Storer of Sanford, Maine. The school remained open from 1865-1955.

There are several duplicated newspaper articles in the exhibit, primarily from the Pioneer Press. The first black paper in West Virginia, the weekly Pioneer Press began publication in 1882 by J. R. Clifford, a Martinsburg attorney. A page from a January 7, 1911, newspaper on display claims that the Pioneer Press has the “largest city circulation; largest foreign circulation; largest domestic and general circulation; largest county and rural circulation of any Negro newspaper in the United States; and the largest Anglo Saxon circulation.”

The military service section includes many photographs of male and female service members. In addition, there are artifacts like the blanket chest, “Brown Bess” style musket and a muzzle loading rampart gun attributed to Dick Pointer, a slave who held off a Shawnee raid on Fort Donnally in 1778 until help arrived. A door from the fort can also be seen.

The slavery and John Brown’s raid section explores the story of the raid, and displays artifacts and photographs and a portrait of John Brown. In addition, the lock and key from Brown’s cell, his handcuffs and the rope that may have been used to hang him are included, as is a straw hat made and worn by slaves for field work prior to 1860, a wool coverlet woven by slaves circa 1850, and a slave collar and gravestone.

Rounding out the exhibit is a section on church and lodge and the importance these institutions held in black communities. Photographs and paintings of African-American churches and lodges and an altar table from the First Baptist Church, Charleston, are on display.

The African-American Heritage Family Tree Museum in Ansted, Barbara Ferguson Hill, First Baptist Church in Charleston, Greenbrier Historical Society North House Museum, Henry Highland Garnet Foundation, JCS Television, Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society in Charles Town, State Historic Preservation Office, West Virginia State Archives and History Collection, West Virginia State Museum and West Virginia State University Archives all contributed to the exhibition. In addition, Dr. Ancella R. Bickley, Lucia James and James A. Tolbert were instrumental in making the exhibit happen.

For more information about Preservation and Re-Discovery–African American History in West Virginia, contact Richard H. Ressmeyer, exhibit curator and director of arts for the Division, at (304) 558-0240, ext. 721.

The West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, brings together the state’s past, present and future through programs and services in the areas of archives and history, the arts, historic preservation and museums. The Cultural Center is West Virginia’s official showcase for the arts. Visit the Division’s website at for more information about programs of the Division. The Department of Arts, Culture and History is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.

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