Updated Charleston Social History Bike Ride
Learn about the civil war, civil rights, labor history and social history on a bike ride around Charleston.
The Diamond Department Store was established in 1927, and was a state of the art five floor retailer in Charleston, WV. The store was successful even through the Great Depression and expanded enough in the late 1940s to have the first escalators in the state installed. However, the Diamond Department store was only elaborate for the white population of Charleston, as they banned the African American community from the store’s lunch counter and cafeteria. Local activist, Elizabeth Harden Gilmore, and the Congress of Racial Equality staged sit-ins for a year and a half to fight for their right to be treated equally. In 1930, the Diamond Department Store opened their lunch counter and cafeterias to everyone no matter the color of their skin, thanks to the efforts of Gilmore and CORE.
Mattie V. Lee was the first African American woman physician from the state of West Virginia, and was heavily involved in efforts to provide housing for female students and as a center for social events. The Mattie V. Lee house was established in 1915 as a safe haven for African American girls who relocated to Charleston, WV in search of employment. Historically, the home served as a social, religious, and cultural center, as well as helping in the process of residents becoming employed. Today the Mattie V. Lee Home is an addiction treatment center for the Prestera Center.
Named for former slave Henry Highland Garnet (1815- 1882), Garnet High School served as one of three black high schools in Kanawha County, WV. As most schools did, Garnet High School provided a vital cultural tie to members of the community it served. Throughout the era of segregation Garnet High School provided an excellent education for its students despite the limitations which developed under the "separate but equal" system. The school produced many notable alumni including the Reverend Leon Sullivan, medical pioneer John C. Norman, Jr., and television personality Tony Brown. Ivin Lee, the first woman to head a police department in West Virginia and the Executive Director of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission is also a graduate of Garnet High School. Today Garnet is utilized as a career center, a WV exemplary school.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Charleston, WV in 1960 to speak at the First Baptist Church. It was the only time that he visited the state. He spoke on multiple topics but specifically desegregation.
Elizabeth Harden Gilmore was a Charleston funeral director and a pioneer in the civil right movement in West Virginia. Gilmore was a leader and one of the founders of the local chapter of Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) that led sit-ins throughout Charleston. She also worked to secure the admission of African American Girl Scouts into the previously all-white Camp Anne Bailey. Gilmore led the first sit-in against the Diamond Department Store’s lunch counter in Downtown Charleston. Thanks to her leadership, the store opened the lunch counter to African American patrons in 1960. In 1988, Gilmore's home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Efforts continue to restore the home and operate it in a way that honors Gilmore's legacy.
In 1898, black women in Charleston, West Virginia, organized a self-help civic organization called the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League. The League sponsored cultural events, supported education, and promoted a variety of causes that were important to members of the city's African American community. The women were particularly active in mentoring young women, creating two auxiliary organizations: Polly Pigtails for children and the League Teens for young women.
When the Kanawha County Board of Education introduced new textbooks in June 1974, few could have predicted the resulting controversy. The decision was viewed as a routine matter by each board members until a handful of residents spoke in opposition to the inclusion of information related to the history, culture, and perspectives of minorities. School board member Alice Moore took up the cause of those who were concerned by the new books and her actions and those of others inspired newspaper ads and protests against the new books. Within weeks, some of the more militant opponents of the new books were engaged in physical fights with the defenders of the books. Community members marched with Confederate flags and members of the Ku Klux Klan descended upon the city threatening violence to anyone who opposed them. The violent rhetoric spawned death threats, shootings, and even the bombing of school buildings. A year of tension, violence, and arrests including attacks on school buses carrying children, attacks on the police, and even the bombing of several elementary schools and the Board of Education building. The event is known today as the "Kanawha County Textbook Controversy," a name that may fail to adequately describe the one-sided nature of the anti-intellectualism and racism that led to acts of violence against educators and schools.
Ruffner Memorial Park (sometimes referred to as Kanawha Riflemen Memorial Park) was established in 1920 on the old Ruffner family cemetery. Although many graves were removed, several remain, including the grave of Revolutionary War Colonel Thomas Bullitt. The most notable feature of the park is a monument to the Kanawha Riflemen, a local antebellum militia company that joined the Confederate 22nd Virginia Infantry and fought in the Civil War. Erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1922, the monument lists the company's members. It also lists "William Armistead, colored cook, faithful during the war," an example of the "happy slave" cliche common among Lost Cause monuments. In 2020, the City of Charleston quietly removed the monument's plaque with the intention to replace it with a new marker detailing the park's history.
The MacFarland-Hubbard House was built in 1836, and is one of seven remaining homes built in Charleston prior to the Civil War. The home has housed four prominent Charleston families since its construction, including the MacFarlands, the Rubys, the Crowleys, and the Hubbards. In 1861, the home was temporarily used as a Federal medical hospital, even though it was owned by a family with Confederate sympathies. Today the MacFarland-Hubbard House has been restored by the West Virginia Humanities Council, whose offices reside on the second floor.