African Americans came to southern West Virginia for work in the mines early last century.
Underground and covered with coal dust, their skin color was barely noticeable, but when World War I came, most of the 400,000 enlisted African Americans were given the lowest tasks. Those who were allowed to fight went largely unrecognized. McDowell County, W.Va., sent 1,500 African-American soldiers, and later became the home of the only U.S. World War I memorial for African-American soldiers.
For years, a museum exhibit on that time has only been available to those who could travel to southern West Virginia. One West Virginia University journalism professor has brought that story to the world through an online exhibit, one of his many contributions to highlighting inequality and injustice in our society.
Joel Beeson, an associate professor, activist and documentary photographer, is being recognized with the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, which is given out every year by the WVU Center for Black Culture and Research to an individual embodying the legacy of King by furthering civil rights, humanitarianism and equality in the state. He received the award at WVU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast held Monday (Jan. 16).
Beeson’s work has of late focused on West Virginia, but has also taken him to Mexico where he documented the lives of workers in Ciudad Jaurez, a dangerous area dominated by drug wars and upheaval; to Alabama where he contributed to a cultural education program and developed a new media workshop to avoid leaving anyone behind in the Internet Age; and to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where he and students documented the lives of displaced New Orleans residents.
Another recent project of Beeson’s, working with the WVU Center for Excellence in Disabilities Fine Arts Program, documents the lives of artists with disabilities.
His documentary “Fighting on Two Fronts, the Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans” aired on PBS and that, along with his oral history project to collect stories from black veterans of the time, garnered him the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust Award.
Marcus Cranford was one of the veterans featured in that documentary and was part of Beeson’s oral history project. He served two years, two months and 12 days during World War II, participating in the invasion of Iwo Jima and watching the iconic scene of the American flag being raised on Mt. Suribachi.
Cranford said he was asked by Beeson’s wife, Dana Coester, an assistant professor in the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, to speak on Beeson’s behalf at the breakfast.
“I couldn’t hardly speak because it really elated me, and I felt honored and privileged to do that because I found a friend in professor Beeson working on these projects,” Cranford said. “He has been a friend and a brother to me.”
When Beeson approached Cranford originally about the oral history project, Cranford thought Beeson would get his interview and photos and then leave. Yet Beeson stayed, looking for a deeper story and finding a friendship.
“His work has resulted in new conversations about the role and experience of black veterans and the history of many blacks,” Cranford said.
Also at the breakfast, Benjamin Seebaugh, a senior at WVU double-majoring in political science and international studies, was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship for his work in fighting for student and minority rights.
Seebaugh founded the Student Advocates for Legislative Advancement, which lobbied to establish renters’ rights legislation in the state, a measure that later passed. West Virginia was one of three states to not have legislation protecting renters’ rights. A member of the Student Government Association, Seebaugh is lobbying for a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies minor and created an anti-bullying LGBT committee.
The day was ultimately about King’s fight for a “legacy of love,” said Marjorie Fuller, director of the Center for Black Culture and Research.
Patricia H. Lee, director of the WVU Entrepreneurship Law Clinic at the College of Law, walked the audience through King’s life, and spoke of his connection with her own family. When he fought in 1966 against segregated housing during a speech in Chicago, Lee’s family was building a house in a white neighborhood. Three months after that speech, they moved in and like so many others, took a cue from King in fighting for justice.
She said that like King, she sometimes feels discouraged about the injustice in this country. But she and her siblings are part of the legacy of those who fought for justice like King. One sibling has a Ph.D. in education and instructs nurses, one is a special education teacher with a master’s degree, another has a master’s degree in engineering, and Lee herself is a lawyer who for 10 years worked as a corporate attorney for McDonald’s and was the first to form an entrepreneurship clinic at a law school.
King’s example applies to everyone, Lee said.
“To see where we need to head as we march forward, I ask you each this question,” she said. “Where does the injustice lie in your community? Are there individuals or groups of people that are being bullied harassed or hurt?”
“The issue is injustice, today let’s get caught up with what is right and make a sacrifice to help someone. What injustice will you no longer tolerate?”
WVU Vice President for Student Affairs Ken Gray said the University is “committed to realizing Dr. King’s dream on this campus” through its 2020 Strategic Plan for the Future goal to foster diversity and an inclusive culture. He called the celebration an opportunity to renew a commitment to King’s work.
“We continue to share his hope that ‘in some not to distant tomorrow, the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty,’” Gray said.
CONTACT: Marjorie Fuller, director, WVU Center for Black Culture and Research
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