Black Gold in Appalachia – Their Footsteps, Our Treasure

This past October, I received a call from Dr. Alicestyne Turley, Director of the Carter G. Woodson Center at Berea College, “Mitzi I’d like to bring about 20 of my students from my African Americans in Appalachia course to your hometown for a tour!” I thought, “a tour of what?!”

Like most small towns in Appalachia, my hometown is doing it’s best to reinvent itself since the slow death of the coal and steel industries. Sad to say, many feel we don’t have much left, yet a few are collaborating to find new solutions to problems and visioning a new way of existing that respects our past yet creating a better future.

Dr. Turley continued, “Woodson spent a lot of time in your birth town of Huntington WV.” I said to her, “Growing up here, I had no idea who Carter G. Woodson was, sadly it wasn’t until I moved to New York City as a young adult that I first heard his name. We’re nottaught that the Father of Black History Month moved here from Virginia with his family to find work and received his high school diploma.”

Not only did Carter G. Woodson receive his diploma in Huntington, but he later came back after time spent at Berea College, and became the principal of our Frederick Douglas School, where he was once educated. It’s unbelievable to me that folks (we say that in WV) here let the school be torn down. They say some tried to stop the demolition, apparently there wasn’t a large enough group who voiced the value of maintaining such a building.

With disappointment and frustration surrounding my heart, my mind started to race, “How could we have let such important influence dissolve into the river (the Ohio River to be exact)!? The Frederick Douglas school has been torn down! Every child up and down this Ohio River Valley should be taught that the Father of Black History lived and worked in the area! Shouldn’t everyone here, African American, white, and brown wear this truth proudly in our hats!?”

I asked Dr. Turley “please give me some time to find out what kind of a tour I can organize that might be of value to you and your students.”

I was compelled to host a tour for the students! Berea College has been so good to me, each time I’ve performed and been a keynote speaker on campus. Like an archeologist I started my dig calling every African American elder I knew;

Me: Somebody’s got to know about Dr. Woodson’s time in Huntington?

Elder 1: He was the principal of the old Frederick Douglas school. They tore that down, but there’s a statue over on Hal Greer Blvd.

Me: A statue is all we have left?! I can’t have them come just to see a statue.

Elder 2: My Mom remembers Carter G, she said he was a small man, serious, not very friendly, I guess he was so focused on his mission, he didn’t care to socialize much…

Me: Can you imagine during that time the effort it would take to bring Negro History Week into existence? That’s serious stuff.

My most important excavation, connecting with Professor and journalist Burnis Morris head of the Carter G. Woodson Lyceum at Marshall University in Huntington. I had no idea Huntington housed a lyceum! Within minutes of talking with him, I learned that a few local people understood Dr. Woodson’s value and gone to great lengths to preserve some of his memory. Karen Nance a historian and preservationist (see photo) is now the current owner of the Barnett Building on 6th Avenue in Huntington. The Barnett Building was built to be the first African America Hospital in West Virginia. Carter G. Woodson’s family owned it. I also learned that the creator of the CLIO on-line history walking tour system lives in Huntington. Clio has a specific African American history component. Additionally, David Harris, a local citizen and treasurer of Huntington’s Carter G. Woodson Group does performances as Woodson during Black History Month.

“Hmmm” I could see a tour coming together. Dr. Turley and Morris and I fleshed out what was to be one of the most inspiring moments I’ve ever experienced in my hometown.

We started Friday evening, October 6, at the Marshall Café with City Council Member Sandra Clements joining me in welcoming our guests. She shared her own family’s knowledge of Woodson (see photo above). Saturday morning started with a lecture with Burnis Morris, a presentation by David Harris, and Karen Nance’s orientation of the migration of Woodson’s family to Huntington in preparation of our tour of the Barnett Building which she currently owns. As each person presented their knowledge of Woodson, our Berea guests were amazed, so much of his and his family’s story in Huntington is missing from national books. After having some of the best peach cobbler at Buzzy’s Café (see photo below), we walked 2 blocks to see the Woodson’s statue (see photo below) and the new Frederick school. We boarded the bus, off to the Barnett building. What a treat!

The Barnett Building (see photos and video) has not been renovated since the early 1900s. Our guests and myself felt like we were taking a ghost walk back in time. There were suites for hospital guests, including a bathroom. The old tiles still there, the impression of tubs still on the floor. A desk still in the front space where an administrator must have done their work. Our guests agreed that the nervous walk up the fire stair case was worth it to see this historical space. Mrs. Nance shared an article with us, featuring the Guthrie Family, a prominent white family in town that owned a hospital, donation of the first shadow-proof chandelier to the Barnett hospital. Now with the new chandelier patients could be treated at all hours of the night. She also shared that Barnett Hospital had a “zero infection” rate. This was unheard of, not even the white hospitals in the region could boast of having “no infection.” This rating means, Barnett was superior. African Americans came from around the country to train there.

Lunchtime on our tour, the new president of Marshall University Dr. Jerome Gilbert hosted us for lunch. After lunch, Marshall’s Dr. Monica Brooks of the Drinko Library hosted a session on the CLIO system.

4 p.m. we were filled with stories of Carter G. Woodson’s life, of local people who’ve overcome limited resources and expectations, building hospitals, directing schools, and inspiring our nation to take time to honor the many contributions African Americans have made to make this nation great! We asked our guests, if they wanted to continue with the bus tour to Burlington Ohio, just across the Ohio river to see a few more of Woodson heritage sites. Most responded, “We’re overwhelmed with the information we’ve received today, we’d like to take some time to reflect and consider how this will affect our thesis and final projects.”

We ended the tour at Marshall’s student union, where Dr. Turley asked each student to speak on their thesis statements and the edits they plan to make.

In closing, I asked if each student would share some thoughts on what they’re thinking and feeling from this tour. My heart was full from their comments, especially one young man who said, “Who am I to lose motivation, think my life is hard… being here and walking in the first African American Hospital in West Virginia. Incredible. I need to step-up my game!”

It was an incredible opportunity for me to arrange this tour for our guests and community members. Everyone shined that day. I know there’s more to come from this, Huntington WV should be a destination for African American History. There’s something very special about us on this Ohio River. Black, white and brown folk on the Mason-Dixon Line. The space, the place where free-slaves, Natives and whites co-existed in a way that was impossible in the South. This trip confirmed that so many important stories of over-coming, of brilliance have been left out of our text books, and been destroyed… our future together on this planet depends on us allowing each voice, each success to be honored.

I am committed to bringing true stories to those who need to hear them, and working within my community to rectify our past and create a new space where we walk truthfully in our history and live our future. There’s an amazing African American history in every town in America. All Americans can be inspired by it. If you know this already good, and if it’s not apparent now, please go excavate yours!


About the Author

Named in the “Top 5 Best Diversity Speakers in America,” by Campus Activities Magazine performance artist, activist, and educator, Mitzi Sinnott presented her unique family saga “SNAPSHOT: a true story of love interrupted by invasion,” featured repeatedly on PBS nationwide, and on stage in South Africa, Scotland, Sweden, Brooklyn, and campuses across America. SNAPSHOT is the true-life quest of a mixed-race daughter from Central Appalachia who eventually finds her Vietnam Veteran father suffering in Hawaii.

Audience feedback affirms her story has transformative power which she incorporates into her keynote presentations, campus workshops and strategic planning efforts, using story-telling to reveal, connect and challenge.

Mitzi’s personally familiar with the complexities of racial identity, mental illness, and the legacy of war. She is a champion of authentic conversation who effortlessly and respectfully navigates difficult topics, making her very effective on college campuses and why she is a sought-after keynote speaker for groups like Marshall University’s Women of Color Luncheon, St. Thomas University’s Leadership Institute, The National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, AFLV West, and APCA National Conference.

Currently Mitzi’s company All Here Together Productions utilizes her expertise to convene conversations about race and class across industries and interests, building more tolerant communities, learning from the past, re-imagining our future, one story at a time. This is her life’s purpose, creating community from strangers.

Would you like to learn more about Mitzi, See the variety of programs she has to offer, or find out how you can book her for your event? Click here!

Leave your comment