February 17th, 2014
In this week’s post, the WVRHC celebrates three African American West Virginians whose achievements in business and education contributed to the betterment of our society: businessmen Charles H. James and John Hunt, and teacher and librarian Victorine Louistall Monroe.
Charles H. James (ca. 1863-1929) of Kanawha County, West Virginia, founded of the James Produce Company, one of the first totally black owned and managed businesses in West Virginia. Our collection, which includes copies of James’ correspondence and business records, shows how engaged James was in the improvement of his community and the advancement of his race. James was an active member of the National Negro Business League, an organization that supported networking and economic development for African Americans, and served on its Executive Committee. In 1918, James received a letter from former President Theodore Roosevelt, who praised James for his work, writing “I think I have spoken of you at least a hundred times, pointing to you as the man who actually is, by his actions and not merely by words, solving the race problem in this country.”
John Hunt (1871-1932) was one of the first African Americans to operate a restaurant in Morgantown, WV. He opened a restaurant under the Commercial Hotel in 1892 located across from the courthouse on High Street. He also owned and operated the first ice cream plant in Morgantown (pictured above), storing up winter’s ice from the Monongahela River to use in his recipes.
More information about Mr. Hunt and other prominent African Americans of Morgantown can be found in the book Our Monongalia: A History of African Americans in Monongalia County, West Virginia, by Connie Park Rice (Terra Alta, WV: Headline Books, 1999). She donated the research papers used to write her book to the WVRHC in 2007.
Victorine Louistall Monroe (1912-2006) was the first African American woman to receive a graduate degree from WVU (1945) and the first African American to serve as a WVU faculty member (1966). In 1990, she spoke about her experiences at the WVU Libraries’ West Virginia Day celebration, saying
“After completing my oral exam on my thesis, which was “A Comparison of the Opportunities Offered the Negro and White Schools in the Field of Commerce in West Virginia”, it seemed like I waited for hours before the committee reconvened. Finally, Dr. Hill, who was on my committee, and Dr. Pollock came out. And they congratulated me, and then Dr. Hill said to me “How does it feel to be the first Negro woman to graduate from WVU?” At that point I was taken aback, because I really didn’t realize that I had become a pioneer…”
Read more of her speech in the Summer 1990 WVRHC newsletter.
Blog post by Jane Metters, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.