Library hosts black history event
HUNTINGTON — As all good stories tend to do, Cicero Fain III’s most recent story quest started on the front porch. But it sure didn’t end there.
The Huntington native history professor has been on an eight-year odyssey conducting personal interviews and scouring court and church documents, school yearbooks, newspaper archives, personal diaries and family histories to tell the untold stories of black Huntington.
That work has been collected in the 296-page University of Illinois Press book, “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story,” that is to be released in May. In the book, Fain, a history professor at College of Southern Maryland since 2011, tells the story of the African-American experience in Huntington and West Virginia from the post-Civil War era through the early part of the 20th century.
On Saturday afternoon, surrounded by family, friends and a packed crowd at the Cabell County Public Library, Fain gave folks a sneak peek at some of the rich tapestry of stories he uncovered in the book during his guest lecture as part of an African-American Genealogy Workshop event.
That daylong family history event was sponsored by The Friends of the Cabell County Public Library and Marshall University Libraries, along with the Cabell County Public Library.
A former Carter G. Woodson Fellow at Marshall University, Fain, who worked on the project as part of his master’s and then his doctorate degree programs from Ohio State University, said the untold stories of his home kept calling him.
“I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write a master’s thesis on, but then it hit me that between Dad and the front porch and all of the other folks who have passed through our lives, there was a story to be told,” Fain told the crowd. “It is one thing to say that this is a really nice story, but it is another thing to find the pieces to build the narrative. The truth of the matter is they are out there. That is what this is all about in large measure — recognizing what you may consider is unimportant can be one of many resources
that can be brought to bear to create a story. That is why folks need to be mindful that I am not going to throw that away — that information may be of use to somebody.”
Fain told the crowd that to capture the stories of the past, one must not wait to interview relatives, neighbors or the keepers of the neighborhood or city history.
“The whole process of being a historian is so much serendipity, so much being at the right place at the right time, who just so happens to have something they want to share, and if you don’t show up that day, you have missed that opportunity,” Fain said. “I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, because I couldn’t do it now. Some of the people that I interviewed have passed on and those records are gone, so in many ways this is larger than me and it is a labor of love.”
Fain also announced that Emma and Nelson Barnett were donating a photograph collection of hundreds of photos taken by photographer Carl Barnett of life in Huntington’s African-American neighborhoods from 1932 to 1940.
Those boxes of photos are being donated to the Marshall University Special Collections. Lori Thompson, the interim director at Special Collections, said they were going to start scanning the negatives Monday of the photos that put a wide-angle lens on the community, from photos of families, sports teams and churches to the long-gone Shabby’s Shanty club that was on 14th Street.
“This is a treasure trove of photographs,” Fain said. “In large measure historical photographs detailing the black experience are rare, so this opens up an amazing window into the community.”
Thompson said the collection is unique in that each photo is in envelopes detailing who, what and where the photos are taken.
“Here’s a photo of the 1935 Douglass High School football team,” Thompson said. “This probably doesn’t live anywhere else.”
Thompson said it will take months to get the entire collection scanned, catalogued and uploaded on their website, but they were going to begin immediately.
“It’s fantastic, and I think one of the things we learned about today is that a lot of this history is hard to find and especially in the Huntington community, but also nationwide,” Thompson said. “These have names on them, so when people are doing their family genealogy they will hopefully be a Google search away from finding an ancestor. Rarely, rarely, rarely do I ever get this kind of information. I usually get a box of photos with no names or dates.”
Saturday’s event was organized in part by Marshall University assistant professor and librarian Kelli Johnson who is on sabbatical for the spring semester, diving into an oral history project in Huntington’s African-American community.
Johnson said the day, which included a welcome by Burnis Morris, the Carter G. Woodson Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at Marshall University, a tour of the James E. Casto Local History and Genealogy Room and an overview of Digital Resources at the Library, could not have gone any better.
“During the day we had about 12 people come to learn to trace their roots, and a few had to wander off this afternoon, but then the minute that Cicero Fain hit the lectern it got packed in here,” Johnson said. “It was amazing, and I am so happy we were able to provide this service for folks in the community and that we were able to reinforce how important our history is and how important it is for us to preserve our history, because it is something we are celebrating.”
DIGGING INTO MORE BLACK HISTORY
To learn more about Huntington native Cicero Fain III’s new 296-page book, “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story” (which is out in May), go online at www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/89rgn5gn9780252042591.html to pre-order.
Fain will be back in Huntington as the guest speaker at the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Foundation Inc.’s 27th annual Fundraising Banquet at 6 p.m. April 13 at Marshall University Memorial Student Center. Reserved tickets are a $30 donation, with corporate table reservations available. Funds raised will help the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Foundation provide academic scholarships and to realize its vision of a black history and civil rights history museum in Huntington’s Fairfield community through restoration of the Memphis Tennessee Garrison home.
Reservations may be made by calling Rebecca Glass at 304-633-0996. Leave a message with your name and the number of tickets needed.
You may order tickets by mail by sending a check for $30 per guest to: Carter G. Woodson Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 5483, Huntington, WV 25703. Include your mailing address and the tickets will be mailed directly to you.