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Charleston’s black history on display

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail photos
Anna Gilmer (right) listens as Anthony Kinzer, director of the West Virginia Center for African American Art and Culture, talks about the history of Charleston’s African-American community and the historically black area called the Block. Gilmer, along with James Randall, wrote the book “Black Past,” from which much of the exhibit’s information came.
Alisa Bailey, CEO and president of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, (right) talks about a new exhibit featuring Charleston’s black history, as she stands beside Anthony Kinzer, director of the West Virginia Center for African American Art and Culture, (left) on Friday.
Alisa Bailey, CEO and president of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, talks about the history of the Block — Charleston’s prominent African-American downtown district.

Anna Gilmer and James Randall first outlined Charleston’s rich collection of black history in the West Virginia Beacon Digest, a newspaper geared toward the state’s black population, she said. The two profiled black leaders, businesses and churches, and eventually they realized it should be published as a book.

Gilmer and Randall chronicled much of Charleston’s black history — particularly around The Block, Charleston’s registered black historic district — in “Black Past.” That information has been revived and come off the page with a display of excerpts and photos at 601 Morris Street, by Appalachian Power Park.

The West Virginia Center for African American Art & Culture Inc., along with the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, unveiled the exhibit on Friday afternoon.

“We wanted to make that information available mainly for black people. It’s really very rewarding to see it used by all races,” said Gilmer, who was in attendance. It was also her 91st birthday. A dozen red roses sat atop her table in celebration.

Gilmer was born and raised in Charleston and lived on Hansford Street, a happening place to be, she said.

Anthony Kinzer, director of the West Virginia Center for African American Art & Culture Inc., said the exhibit is a “brief depiction of the historical foundation that was laid” in the Block.

“We want to highlight the importance of their contributions not only to the city of Charleston but to the state and the history of our nation,” Kinzer said.

Civil rights leader Leon Sullivan, who was born and raised in Charleston, is just one of many prominent African Americans featured. John Norman, a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon awarded for his medical research, is also featured.

The stories framed on the building’s walls are complex, said Charleston CVB President and CEO Alisa Bailey.

“They’re stories of people, of struggles from economic independence, for equality. There are stories of faith, of life and of happiness,” Bailey said.

Mayor Danny Jones, who recently turned 65, he said, recalled many of the prominent figures written about in the exhibit. He recalled much of Charleston’s black history in the memories of his childhood.

“I’m just glad I grew up around it. It’s very significant,” Jones said of Charleston’s close relationship with the Civil Rights Movement, of which many of its black citizens were a part.

It was also announced Friday that rhythm and blues musician Harry Van Walls — also known as Vann “Piano Man” Walls — will be inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

The Block exhibit is on display on the first floor of 601 Morris Street in Charleston.

The Center for African American Arts and Culture will also lead today its Valley Heritage Tour. This tour will make stops at various sites of black historical significance in the Kanawha Valley.

The trolley departs the Lee Street Triangle — at Lee and Capitol streets in downtown Charleston — at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Boarding for adults is $10. Children 12 years old and younger can board the trolley for $5.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5102 or follow @rachelmolenda on Twitter.

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