The small town of Kimball in McDowell County, West Virginia 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 Reed College of Media 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.
“We look at reporting history as a process akin to archaeology: the audience, community and memory are like shards of material culture, pottery and tools, that the investigator pieces together to weave a non-linear narrative. We are combining the oldest form of communication, oral history, with archival evidence, such as personal and official photographs, film footage, memorabilia and physical artifacts as journalism tools for collaborative narrative,” says Beeson.
As director of the West Virginia Veterans Oral History Project – an ongoing effort since 2003 – Beeson has acquired and edited more than 500 photographs, including historical World War I images and a photographic social survey of McDowell County coal miners by the famous Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee.
He became acquainted with the McDowell County memorial and its board members in 2004 while working on his documentary, “Fighting on Two Fronts: The Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans.”
In the fall of 2009, Beeson shared the idea of creating a photo exhibit for the memorial with students in his visual storytelling class. What started out as a class assignment evolved into a community project, now known as the “Kimball War Memorial Project.”
“The Kimball War Memorial Building is the nation’s first and only war memorial honoring African American soldiers that fought in World War I. Most Americans are unaware of the history of black service in WWI and that black troops made up one-third of the total U.S. fighting force. Remarkably, 1,500 of these African American soldiers came from McDowell County, West Virginia. The memorial was dedicated in 1928 and served as a center for community life until the early 1970s when the building began to deteriorate.
A fire in 1991 left only a roofless shell. Local efforts led to funding for restoration, which won an award from the prestigious American Institute of Architects. This project proposes the development and installation of permanent photographic exhibition honoring the African American solders as a facet of the restoration efforts. Until now, the building has been used for community meetings, and the commercial kitchen and upstairs auditorium rented out for special occasions. In 2009 I offered to make some prints for decorating the walls of the memorial to E. Ray Williams, one of the WWII black veterans who I have been interviewing and working with for the past five years. In fall 2009, in my advanced visual storytelling class, the students were challenged to edit an exhibit and website that told the stories of why the nation’s only major memorial to WWI African American veterans was in remote McDowell County. By the end of the semester, after visiting the community, they proposed that we actually do the project. And here we are after a year of research, travel to the National Archives for collecting more images and footage, hiring contractors, choosing paint schemes, wiring for lights, etc.”
Team members for the project include Assistant Professor Dana Coester; Project Coordinator Brianna Swisher, who is doing a year-long AmeriCorps internship with Coal Heritage Highway, one of the project’s collaborating partners; News-editorial junior Evan Moore, who assisted with photo editing and photo acquisition for the project, News-editorial senior Andrew Lawson, who assisted with web development and exhibit installation. The exhibit and event have also been supported by students from the PI Reed School of Journalism’s Public Relations capstone course, led by Associate Professor Ivan Pinnell.
In addition to exposing journalism students to new narrative tools through oral history, designing an exhibit across media platforms helps students re-envision their roles as journalists for experiential reporting.
“Those who have had the authority over official documents and histories have established dominant narratives of people of color. Depictions of race and the racial past tend to follow narrative paths leading to one-dimensional types and binary assumptions of victim and victimizer, black and white, etc. To counter these narratives, historians and documentary storytellers must draw from a multiplicity of sources, methodologies, and theoretical traditions to construct a satisfyingly complex and contested historical conversation.
In the Kimball project, our intention is to explore the use of one of the oldest media, oral history, with new media to construct a non-linear narrative with multidimensional interpretations based on interactivity and collaboration with viewer, storyteller AND written histories, sources, images, film, audio. The narrative emerges from the process, which invites the “audience” to participate.
Another goal of the exhibit examines the notion of multimedia and digital interface with architectural and spatial metaphors of the museum exhibit. It was only with the opportunity to think about the interactive design of a physical exhibit in a local community space that is integrated with an online exhibit and even a mobile application did we exploit the storytelling metaphors of architecture and space.
Additionally, there are aspects of the project which are designed to strengthen local community through income generation (starting with an online CafePress gift shop that requires no large startup investment as well as programmatic activities with the local community to gather oral narratives about race, coal mining, labor and military service.)
Techniques of data collection and analysis are similar to the notion of counter-storytelling methods in Critical Race Theory and sociological ethnographic research: coding themes and patterns from audio and video-recorded oral history interviews, using community memory… Some of these result in historical “characters” in the narrative that represent composites of multiple interviews and insights gleaned from participant observations and analysis of other research materials such as newspaper accounts, primary and secondary historical sources, etc. This research-based process is used as a template for the visual editing and design of the exhibit. ”
Work on this exhibit is partially funded through a 2010 WVU Public Service Grant.
This project was partially funded by West Virginia Campus Compact’s Campus-Community LINK Project, through a grant from the Benedum Foundation.
This project has received support from Gomadic Corporation.
This project is being presented by West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media with financial assistance from The West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed on this site does not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.