Note: This post was previously listed under our "News from the Grey Box" blog series
Robert C. Byrd and the Restoration of the Kimball War Memorial
By Jody Brumage
Faith, Hope, Charity, and Service.
Four words which could easily define the life and career of Robert C. Byrd; and four ideas embodied in the brick and terra cotta columns of the Kimball War Memorial in McDowell County, West Virginia.
In 1999, when a group of concerned citizens first began to contact Senator Byrd’s office, the memorial had suffered from several decades of neglect and an arson which had gutted its interior and roof. A shell of four brick walls and a crumbling portico was all that remained of the first memorial erected in honor of African American veterans of the “Great War” in the United States.
The memorial has a unique and interesting history.
Soon after the end of World War I, African American citizens of McDowell County began to organize an effort to have a memorial built to commemorate the over 1,500 black men who served in the war from the county. Under the organization of the Luther Patterson Post 36 of the American Legion, Hassell T. Hicks, an architect from the city of Welch, was commissioned to design the memorial which would be a community center for Kimball.
Dedicated on February 11, 1928, the Kimball War Memorial stood equipped with conference facilities, a kitchen, and an auditorium. Artifacts from the war were exhibited throughout the building. Hicks designed the memorial in a neo-classical style, with a large portico of four columns supporting an elaborate pediment upon which the words “World War Memorial” were inscribed.
As the coal industry which fueled the area’s economy began to wane in the 1950s and 60s, the memorial received less and less money and maintenance, becoming increasingly derelict. An arsonist set fire to the building in 1991, leaving a mere shell of the once vibrant center of the community of Kimball.
In the mid-1990s, area residents began the effort of restoring the memorial as a significant piece of the African American heritage of southern West Virginia. The task was a daunting one, with an estimated cost of over one million dollars to restore the memorial. Through the McDowell County Commission, a request to Senator Robert C. Byrd was made. Citizens began writing letters and sending photographs to the Senator’s office, soon drawing his attention to the project. In response, Byrd added $500,000 to the Fiscal Year 2000 Veterans Affairs/Housing and Urban Development (VA/HUD) Appropriations Bill.
With nearly $1.2 million in hand, the McDowell County Museum Commission progressed with the restoration, working with photos of the original interior provided by the grandson of Hassell T. Hicks. The Glem Company, of Charleston, West Virginia, oversaw the project. Despite several setbacks, the Kimball War Memorial was completed and opened for community in the summer of 2006. The newly restored memorial contained meeting rooms, offices, a reception area, auditorium, kitchen, and an exhibit area for WWI artifacts.
The restoration of the Kimball War Memorial proved a success, with the project receiving an Honor Award of Excellence from the West Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Recognition of the project’s success was also made by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Today, the memorial is in use as a community center and a space that hosts events. In addition, through the efforts of Joel W. Beeson, associate professor of Journalism at West Virginia University, a new exhibit documenting the history of African American service to the United States from the coalfields of West Virginia is contained within the memorial. The exhibit, entitled “Forgotten Legacy: Soldiers of the Coalfields,” supplements the memorial’s archives which were lost to the arson that destroyed the interior in 1991.
As a significant landmark of the National Coal Heritage Area, the Kimball War Memorial has become a major contributor to the tourism industry in southern West Virginia, and stands as a success story for historic preservation. Its very existence is greatly owed to the interest and efforts by Senator Robert C. Byrd to see its restoration completed.
In 2010, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph ran an article covering the story of the memorial, written by Bill Archer, who played a large role in seeing the project come to fruition. Archer recounted his disappointment that Byrd was never able to attend the dedication of the memorial, and when he had the chance to meet the Senator, he expressed his profound appreciation for his efforts. Byrd replied: “It needed to be done, it was the right thing to do.”
Information regarding the memorial and the exhibit can be found on their website.
The sources for this article are largely from the Congressional Papers of the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, contained within the archives of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. Other sources include the Forgotten Legacy website, the National Coal Heritage Area website, and the Bluefield Daily Telegraph of Bluefield, West Virginia. All photographs are taken from the Robert C. Byrd Congressional Papers collection.
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