After I came here, as a pastor at First Baptist Church, everybody that knew me from Atlanta, I would meet at national conventions. They’d say, ‘Where are you?’ ‘I’m in First Baptist.’ ‘Oh, yeah, that’s in Virginia?’ I said, ‘No, that’s in West, by God, Virginia.’ Part of the identity crisis that Black folks have when they travel is being confused with being labeled as part of Virginia. And there is a uniqueness about that.
The other thing—the power of stories, particularly in this area, is one that is unique across the board, in terms of how Appalachian stories just have that kind of unique character because of where it takes place. Why it takes place, and it also reveals three very important things in terms of how social institutions, educational institutions, have shared a common fate. And that is, what is the cause of that initiation? In terms of how they got started? What is the measure of the impact in terms of that intention for getting started? And when you look at Black institutions, like West Virginia State College now, and then other Black institutions that have developed in the West Virginia context, you can really see the connection and how this has been a part of its history. And how the current conversation and focus on it is really saying something that has been known for a long time but had not been exposed in terms of the President of the Charleston branch of the NAACP. And when the NAACP started, it was initiated by the Niagra Movement, which took place in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. One of my predecessors at First Baptist Church in his lineage is from a church founded in a town outside of West Virginia where Booker T. Washington taught high school and also where he was raised. So that was the kind of connection that has been a part of why I have been intrigued with this place.
Part of the reason I decided to stay in this space is that the continuous learning experience has come from being here. When I came here in 1972, the Triangle District was just being destroyed. And I didn’t know the story behind the Triangle District until after I had been here a while. Some people talked about the cultural impact on the development and the destruction of the African American community in Charleston and the extended effects on West Virginia.
Because I was a pastor in First Baptist, I saw the four-way interstate highway system of 64 and 74 running through the heart of downtown. At first, I thought that that was a great thing because it’s one of the unique spaces and places where I have seen a highway system running through the city’s heart. But then I came to know how that had impacted the community because I had members who had been residents of that community and had talked about how vibrant that community was. From the standpoint of socialization, clubs, and Black entrepreneurship there. Even the relationship between the police and the community. There were police officers who became legends in that community because of how they looked out for that community and how they looked out for them. And that’s the kind of connection we’re trying to get with police officers now.
So many things were going on that intrigued me about the Triangle District. They only became enriched by coming to awareness of the story of that district and the impact in terms of how it destroyed the spirit. But how, in situations like that, there is a spirit that cannot be denied. That cannot be defied but often become resurrected. And succeeding situations where the legacy of that story has a fresh impact.
One of the great lessons of history was how the disruption of the Triangle was preparing the space for the mall. And now you look at the mall’s space and see there’s plenty of space in the mall. And it reminds me of one of the great lessons of history, the mills of God grind slowly yet exceedingly fine. And there is an arc in the moral universe that brings about that kind of illustration of what happens when that process decimates people to expand land that comes from taking land. And we know that, in this country, Malcolm often reminded us that the primary movements that have impacted the American system of enterprise and politics have always been about land. I mean, that’s why we were brought here, to cultivate the land for the production of tobacco and those kinds of things. That’s the first thing that hit me; how biblically that’s grounded in a fundamental truth about the universe.
Secondly, Reverend Howard Carter, the Shiloh Baptist Church pastor, was walking distance from Charleston. And when he discovered that I came here and where I was from, he was the first pastor I met. We bonded and, as far as our allegiance to social change and those kinds of issues, he was already grounded and became my tutor. When the garbage workers’ strike took place in Charleston, it took root, taking its lineage from the garbage workers’ strike in Memphis. I kind of got drawn into it, not by the NAACP, because they were not active in that struggle, but by the union. And so the leadership of the union got in touch with me, by way of Reverend Carter, so Reverend Carter and I wound up sitting overnight in a movement at the Charleston Mayor’s Office.
I just remember how much fun we had just participated in that movement that was intended to deal with equal wages, wages for those garbage workers, and that was kind of intended to the movement that Dr. King had led. So that’s how we met. And so it was no surprise to me that he had already had and was kind of standing alone. Because he was not a native of Charleston, he came here to pastor that church. And therefore, he and I were sharing common ground, being new to the city at the time of this particular transition. And so, we became connected by way of that struggle. And I just, I just kind of appreciated how that clips show his commitment. And it also shows how the leadership, ground roots leadership in Charleston, was a part of the Triangle District.
So it wasn’t the President of the Charleston branch of the NAACP or any other predominantly Black organization that took leadership in that movement. The ground roots folk in the neighborhood connected because of that connection in the Triangle District, saying, ‘We are not going to sit down and take this. We know that this is something that we must bind ourselves.’ And when you look at the direction of the city, and how there has been often notions about how Black folks don’t get along, and all that, that was one of those situations where the binding and the bonding in the struggle really reveal the sources of leadership in the community, however, not dependent on outside forces to raise the issue. And raise it in such a way that it got attention; even though it did not get the desired results, it made a significant impact on the leadership of the community that is still present.