Rose Cousins (Photo courtesy e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia)
Rose Cousins (Photo courtesy e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia)

WVWC professor shares the stories of noteworthy Black West Virginians

BUCKHANNON – In observance of February as Black History Month, My Buckhannon connected with a local history professor to shine the spotlight on individuals and events that helped shape West Virginia.

Dr. Tamara Bailey, assistant professor of history at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said the long campaign for civil rights has many important stories and figures that are often overlooked when studying the state’s history.

“African Americans were largely united in their pursuit of civil rights for more than 100 years,” Bailey explained. “This often involved membership in the NAACP or being an integral part of the integration of schools. Once this was achieved, there was a mass exodus of Black families from West Virginia. Most of us have spent the following years creating a narrative of those stories, and we stumble across greatness that was hidden because whitewashed history erased reality.”

Bailey pointed to the story of Katherine Johnson. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson became one of the first Black women to work as a NASA scientist. Her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. spaceflights with crews on-board.

“Her story and the stories of many other people are fascinating,” Bailey said.

Bailey shared some of those stories written by West Virginia historian Ancella Bickley.

Memphis Tennessee Carter Garrison was a teacher and activist. Born in Hollins, Virginia, Garrison was the daughter of a former slave who became a coal miner. In 1918, she married William Melvin Garrison, an electrician and coal company foreman in Gary, a small town in McDowell County.

In 1939, she graduated from Bluefield State College and taught school in McDowell County and served as a welfare worker for the U.S. Steel Company. Garrison helped to settle racial disputes, provided counseling to black miners and their families and developed cultural and recreational opportunities for residents.

Bickley writes that Garrison was active with the Republican Party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She helped develop and sustain chapters of the NAACP in southern West Virginia and served as a national vice president and as a field secretary who undertook special organizing and membership activities. One of her most important achievements was the creation of the Christmas Seal Project, which became an important fundraising effort for the NAACP.

T. G. Nutter was a lawyer with at least two successful discrimination cases involving housing and public spaces. Bailey said he was one of the first Black men elected to the West Virginia State Legislature in 1918.

“Nutter was an integrator of schools and served as the President of the West Virginia NAACP,” Bailey said.

Another story Bailey shared involved Rose Agnes Rolls Cousins, an aviator whose daughters helped with integration in schools in Fairmont.

Bickley writes that Cousins was the first black woman to become a solo pilot in the Civilian Pilot Training Program at West Virginia State College, now a university. While Cousins was growing up in Fairmont, she became interested in ‘boy’ things and competed with her brother. She entered college at West Virginia State at age 16, majoring in business administration, but her association with the pilot’s program rekindled a childhood desire to fly.

Bickley wrote that in 1940, Cousins learned to fly, reportedly by telling the instructor, “I’ll just put my hair up and you can pretend I’m a man.” In an open cockpit, she learned to put the plane into a spin, fly upside down and land with the engine off. In order to qualify for a pilot’s license, Cousins completed a cross-country flight alone, guided only by sight and a compass.

Cousins went to the Tuskegee Institute in 1941 with the first group of 10 male students from West Virginia State College to try out for the U.S. Air Force training program for black combat pilots. However, she was rejected because of her gender.

While Cousins spent most of her life working as the manager of medical records at the Fairmont Clinic and found little opportunity to use her flying skills, Bickley noted that she is remembered for her courage and tenacity in choosing to become a pilot.

J.R. Clifford was a lawyer and a part of the Niagara Movement who convinced the West Virginia Supreme Court that black and white teachers should be paid equally and that black and white students should have the same length of school years.

Bickley wrote that John Robert Clifford was born in present-day Grant County. During the Civil War, Clifford served as a corporal in the U.S. Colored Troops, and later in life he was a teacher and principal at the Sumner School in Martinsburg. In 1882 he founded, edited and published the “Pioneer Press,” West Virginia’s first African American newspaper.

Clifford became the first African American admitted to practice law in 1887 before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and he was one of the first lawyers in the nation to challenge segregated schools. In Carrie Williams v. The Board of Education Fairfax District, he successfully argued that “discrimination against people because of color alone as to privileges, immunities and equal protection of the law is unconstitutional.”

The case originated in Fairfax District of Tucker County. Clifford won in the local court and the Williams decision was affirmed Nov. 16, 1898, in a landmark ruling by the state Supreme Court.

Bickley wrote that in 1897, Clifford was elected as a charter member of the American Negro Academy and served a term as vice president of the organization. He was chairman on the committee on arrangement of the 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement which was held in Harpers Ferry, a meeting that laid the foundation for the founding of the NAACP and the 20th century Civil Rights movement.

According to Bickley’s writings, Clifford was still practicing law until his death. At age 85, and he was the most senior lawyer active in West Virginia.

Clifford was buried at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Berkley County. In 1954, the Civil War veteran’s remains were re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Bailey said the Carrie Washington case changed everything.

“She was a brave woman who kept her school open in direct defiance of the Board of Education,” Bailey said. “The West Virginia Supreme Court’s decision was revolutionary and led to teachers from highly revered colleges in the North to settle in West Virginia, because the pay for Black teachers was among the best in the entire East.

“After Washington’s case, Black teachers’ pay legally matched white teachers’ pay. The opening of Bluefield State and West Virginia State College attracted professionals to West Virginia as well.”

Bailey said the Niagara Movement, which led to the creation of the NAACP, has a fascinating history.

An article written by Edward Peeks says the second conference of the Niagara Movement, led by W.E.B. DuBois, met at Storer College in Harpers Ferry in 1906, was among the most significant gatherings in the history of civil rights in America. It ultimately resulted in the founding of the NAACP in New York in 1905.

The Harpers Ferry meeting commemorated the 1859 raid by abolitionist John Brown on the federal arsenal.

Bailey, who received her Ph.D. in History from WVU, said she was attracted to the subject when she began to wonder why no one who taught about the history of people who looked like her.

“I decided to join the forces and enhance the narrative of America’s history,” she said. “My classes discuss poor people’s movements, civil rights, immigration, globalization and regional history.”

Bailey said her fields include 19th- and 20th-century U.S. history and world history, which focuses on East Asia and African history.

“My research focus is Civil Rights and African American experience in West Virginia,” she said. “My dissertation was ‘From Segregation to Integration: A History of African-American Education in West Virginia from 1862 through 1971.’”

Stay tuned to My Buckhannon for a follow-up article focusing on the fact that Black history is West Virginia history — and it’s important not to wait until February to celebrate the many accomplishments of Black residents in the Mountain State.

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