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Learning about the past

Weirton event offers look at African Americans’ role in community

July 25, 2010
By WARREN SCOTT, Staff writer

WEIRTON - Area residents of all ethnic backgrounds had an opportunity to learn about the role that African Americans have played in the Weirton community through a variety of presentations held during the first Weirton African-American History Festival this weekend.

The three-day festival continues today with a video presentation from 10 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. at the Mary H. Weir Public Library and featuring hundreds of photos of African-Americans who attended the former Dunbar School, worked at Weirton Steel and played active roles in the community.

There also will be a special church service at 11 a.m. at at Mount Olive Baptist Church, the city's oldest African-American church; followed by remarks and prayers at the grave of William "Billy" Wilson, a freed slave who came to live in Hancock County in 1865.

Article Photos

LOOKING BACK — At the gallery behind the Mary H. Weir Public Library, Kim Salter, left, and Stephanie Valentine, both of Weirton, viewed photos of Gwendolyn K. Major and Anthony J. Major, the first two principals of the former Dunbar School, a Weirton school for African-Americans that operated from 1931 to 1956. Anthony J. Major, who led the school from 1931 to 1949, was the first African-American principal to have earned a doctorate. The photos are among many displayed at the gallery and in a video presentation inside the library during the Weirton African-American Festival this weekend.
-- Warren Scott

The grave is at Nessly Cemetery on a hill above state Route 2 just north of New Cumberland.

The history of how Wilson came to live in Hancock County is an interesting one, said William Thompson, who organized the festival with the help of the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center and Mary H. Weir Public Library.

Thompson, a Weirton native who taught in the Eastern Panhandle and Maryland and at a military base in Puerto Rico before returning to his hometown several years ago, shared what he has learned of Wilson's life thus far at a dinner held at the Weirton Millsop Community Center Saturday.

Wanting to trace the history of African-Americans in the Weirton area to the beginning, Thompson learned through U.S. Census records there were two African-American slaves living in the area in 1850 and a freed slave there in 1860.

Research led to the discovery of a photo of Wilson and information that he had saved the life of Lt. Col. Richard Hooker Brown during the Civil War.

Thompson said he's still researching the details of how Wilson, who was then 16 or 17, saved Brown and under what circumstances.

But he does know that Brown was so grateful that he brought Wilson home with him to Hancock County, where he instructed his sister, Virginia, to give him a job on the family's 155-acre farm.

Thompson said Brown came from an influential family. His grandfather Richard is the Brown for whom Brown's Island is named, and Richard himself became a Hancock County sheriff and commissioner before he died at age 73 in 1910.

Virginia died the same year, but Wilson continued to work on the Brown farm and became like family to the surviving Browns, Thompson said.

He learned the two men had attended Nessly Chapel together and found his grave at the cemetery there.

Thompson noted it was unusual then for a black man to be buried at a white church, let alone be buried there.

Other aspects of the festival reminded visitors the segregation of blacks and whites was accepted in Weirton as it was in many other cities in the past.

A video presentation presented at the Mary H. Weir Public Library and produced through the efforts of Thompson and Dennis Jones of the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center includes, among hundreds of pictures, photos of the graduating classes of Dunbar School.

Located on Weir Avenue, the school educated African-American youth from 1931 to 1956, when African-American students were integrated into white schools.

Also included were photos of African Americans who were community leaders and many who worked at Weirton Steel. Many of the latter pictures taken from Weirton Steel's photo archives.

Thompson said he's looking for photos of African-American women at work during the city's early days. He noted many worked as housekeepers or aides at Weirton hospitals.

Eighteen photos highlighting various aspects of African-American history in Weirton also have been displayed at the gallery behind the Mary H. Weir Public Library outside.

Thompson expressed appreciation to Rik Rekowski, the library's director, and his staff; and Jones and the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center for their assistance and support.

He said he looks forward to making the festival an annual event, with focus given to various aspects of life for African Americans in Weirton and those who gain recognition for their accomplishments.

"I have a lot of displays I want to put on," Thompson said.

Herb Veal of Steubenville, a 1948 graduate of Dunbar who was viewing the video presentation, said the festival "is a good thing. As word gets around, there probably will be more out-of-town people coming for it."

Doris Curenton-Bowers, a Weirton native now living in Columbus, said the photos brought back memories for her, having attended Dunbar as a first- and second-grader before it was closed.

Stephanie Valentine, a Weirton resident and 1981 graduate of Weir High School, said she and her friend, Kim Salter, "learned things we never knew and saw pictures we've never seen. It's amazing."

(Scott can be contacted at

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