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AfriGeneas Military Research Forum

Soldiers of the Coalfields: Forgotten Legacy

The Kimball World War I Memorial was the first memorial built in the U.S. to honor African-American veterans of World War I. Today it is the only such memorial remaining. The site was chosen in part because it lay in the heart of an African American community in West Virginia. During the early years of the 20th century, McDowell County had a large black population, many of whom came from the south to build railroads and work in the coal mines.

This region and its contribution to World War I remains a forgotten legacy. Many Americans are unaware that over 400,000 African-Americans volunteered to serve in combat during the Great War. 50,000 of these soldiers actually served overseas. 1,500 of these fighting forces came from McDowell County.

The War Memorial was designed in classical Greek style by Hassell T. Hicks and was dedicated on February 11, 1928. Originally the building housed an auditorium with a small stage, a library, meeting rooms, kitchen facilities and a trophy room with displays of plaques dedicated to veterans. Over time, the declining coal industry led to shrinking employment, income and population. Deterioration, abandonment and a fire in 1991, left the memorial in ruins, leaving only its exterior shell. Local efforts lead to obtaining funding to restore the beautiful structure to its former glory. Restoration of the building was accomplished as the result of funding provided through a combination of sources including state and federal funds. The memorial has been restored and is now open for special events and tours.

The small town of Kimball in McDowell County, WV may seem an unlikely place to house the nation’s only war memorial honoring World War I African American soldiers, but as one might imagine, there is a story to tell.

During summer 2010, West Virginia University P.I. Reed School of Journalism Associate Professor Joel Beeson and three students began working to document that story and create a public exhibit at the Kimball War Memorial Building.

The exhibit, “Forgotten Legacy: Soldiers of the Coalfields” examines the story of African Americans who migrated to McDowell County from the rural South in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and who served in the U.S. military during wartime.

As part of its rich heritage, the Kimball World War I memorial served as a community center and place of discourse for local citizens of all races. This exhibit intends to celebrate the forgotten legacy of African Americans in West Virginia and to provide a place for people of all races and from around the country to come together in a renewed dialogue on race relations in West Virginia and the United States.

We are seeking WWI veterans names, photographs and memorabilia for the exhibit and the memorial from McDowell County and West Virginia.

Please visit the website (, Facebook (, and Twitter ( for more information, photos and videos of the restoration and exhibit.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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