Remembering days on 'The Block'

By Megan Workman
Chip Ellis
Stan Bumgardner interviews Casey James at the Garnet Adult Center on Saturday as a part of the Oral History Recordings Project, which records the history of The Block -- an area along U.S. Route 60 in Charleston where most local blacks lived.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a young girl who grew up in the 1940s and '50s in Charleston, Chlorine Carter remembers playing with kids her age in what she called a "mixed neighborhood." Although segregation between blacks and whites existed, Carter, a black woman, said one of her best memories from her childhood is living in a neighborhood with multiple races. While the Bel Air Court area where she played wasn't segregated, the local schools were."It was fun and all the kids played together. The sad time would come when school would start and we'd have to separate," said Carter, 76. "We would cry. We would meet each other at the corner [after school]. It was a bond."A 1953 Garnet High School graduate, Carter volunteered Saturday to share her memories of growing up in Charleston when the West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture and the Garnet Adult Center hosted Your Voice in History: Oral History Recordings Project at the career center on Dickinson Avenue.The project focuses on an area historically known as "The Block" -- a 25-acre area bound by Washington Street East, Capitol Street, Smith Street and Sentz Court. The Block, located along U.S. Route 60, was the heart of the black community for those leaving the South in search of industrial jobs in the North. Blacks primarily owned businesses and homes on The Block, said Anthony Kinzer, director of West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture.In April 2011, the Charleston Historic Landmarks Commission designated and listed The Block on the local register of historic places.The project encourages people who lived in Charleston's first local historic district to share their memories in video or audio recordings conducted by the West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture. Each interview recording will be put on a CD or DVD and stored in the archives of the West Virginia Division of Culture & History. The purpose of the project is to offer a physical record of what Charleston used to be like when it was "robust," Kinzer said."Memories of The Block are vivid because that's where you hung out," Carter said.She remembers eating the best hot dogs and milkshakes during high school lunch breaks and going to the movie theaters. "I personally feel there's a legacy that needs to be left for individuals younger than me," Kinzer said. "We learned about all aspects of history, [the younger generation] needs to learn about the culture of our city."The project is aimed toward Garnet High School graduates, a black high school that existed from 1900 to 1956 in Charleston, because 95 percent of the people who lived on The Block likely went to that school, Kinzer said."Those people who went to Garnet were associated with the black history of Charleston and their story has to be told," he saidThe recording project is not limited to Garnet graduates, though.
Although there was a black hospital and segregated businesses within The Block, Kinzer said that didn't prevent neighborhoods from becoming diverse. When volunteers reflect about their past, they tell of good times with their nonblack friends, he said."The majority of people think, this being The Block, that only black folk lived here. But that wasn't so," Kinzer said. "I want an Italian person [to share their story]. I want a Greek person. It's not just a project for the black citizens of Charleston. It's a project for all of Charleston."In the mixed neighborhood where Carter grew up, the Sicilians cooked different food than her family did. A Jewish woman in her neighborhood taught her about different cakes and about separating meats and potatoes when cooking.
"She had a jewelry store on Capitol [Street] and I worked there," Carter said. "I learned to gift wrap."In 1961, Carter and the rest of her mixed neighborhood were uprooted to make room for the new interstate, she said. Being forced out of the neighborhood where they spent their whole lives caused hardship for many people, Carter said."It was quite a change, because they didn't give us too much time to look [for a new home]," she said. "They had lived there all their lives; of course they were upset."Like Carter, Kinzer encourages everyone who has a story to share to do just that."It's your personal voice in history," he said. "Everything about you is on that CD."Individuals who missed out on Saturday's event can still share their stories, Kinzer said. He sent a micro recorder to a group of Charleston natives who now live in Columbia, S.C.
"They can sit in a group and reflect on the history," he said.In addition, someone from the West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture can visit a person's home to audio or video record their memories for the project, Kinzer said. There are times when people don't like to talk to strangers, Kinzer said, so they also can have a family member interview them with prepared questions from the West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture.Anyone who is at least 70 years old and interested in sharing their story can call Kinzer, at 304-346-6339, or email him, at Anthony@cacwv.org.Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.
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