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.
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.
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.
In October of 1999, Byrd wrote in a letter to Dr. Sheila J. Brooks, a key leader in the community movement to save the memorial. In it he said: “The Kimball War Memorial is a reminder of the sacrifices made by the soldiers, sailors, and airmen during World War I. It is a unique piece of history, not only to McDowell County, but also to the nation. You may be assured that I am pleased to have supported funding through the appropriations process for this project.”
In August of 2001, Byrd wrote to the McDowell County Museum Commission, informing the group that he had included an additional $700,000 in the Fiscal Year 2002 VA/HUD Appropriations Bill for the continued restoration of the memorial. In a press release announcing the bill’s passage, Byrd was quoted as saying: “The Kimball War Memorial is a unique tribute to black veterans of World War I – the first of its kind in the country. It is my hope that the funding I added for this worthwhile endeavor will help to preserve the War Memorial as a constant reminder to future generations of the price of freedom and of the sacrifices made by West Virginia veterans.”
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.
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.