The Kimball World War I Memorial was the first memorial built in the U.S. to honor African-American veterans of World War I. Today it is the only such memorial remaining. The site was chosen in part because it lay in the heart of an African American community in West Virginia. During the early years of the 20th century, McDowell County had a large black population, many of whom came from the south to build railroads and work in the coal mines.This region and its contribution to World War I remains a forgotten legacy. Many Americans are unaware that over 400,000 African-Americans volunteered to serve in combat during the Great War. 50,000 of these soldiers actually served overseas. 1,500 of these fighting forces came from McDowell County. While discrimination was still prevalent during World War I and beyond, when allowed to fight, these black soldiers did so with honor, demonstrating their valor in combat with French Forces. As a result 171 black soldiers were awarded the Croix de Guerre for “gallantry in action”. 1300 were eventually commissioned as officers in the U.S. Military for their services during World War I.
The War Memorial was designed in classical Greek style by Hassell T. Hicks and was dedicated on February 11, 1928. Originally the building housed an auditorium with a small stage, a library, meeting rooms, kitchen facilities and a trophy room with displays of plaques dedicated to veterans. The Kimball War Memorial was the focal point of community life for decades, serving as a cultural and social center and hosting such diverse activities as high school proms, wedding receptions, and performances by Cab Calloway and other well-known entertainers of the day.
Over time, the declining coal industry led to shrinking employment, income and population. Deterioration, abandonment and a fire in 1991, left the memorial in ruins, leaving only its exterior shell.
Local efforts lead to obtaining funding to restore the beautiful structure to its former glory. Restoration of the building was accomplished as the result of funding provided through a combination of sources including state and federal funds. The memorial has been restored and is now open for special events and tours.
The memorial was the recipient of a 2007 Honor Award presented to by the West Virginia Chapter of the America Institute of Architects and was also featured in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s forum as a Preservation Solution. The Memorial was also honored in 2006 with a Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust Award.
As part of its rich heritage, the Kimball World War I Memorial served as a community center and place of discourse for local citizens of all races. This exhibit intends to celebrate the forgotten legacy of African Americans in West Virginia and to provide a place for people of all races and from around the country to come together in a renewed dialogue on race relations in West Virginia and the United States.