November 23rd, 2015
Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.
The WVRHC recently acquired a bound volume of typed minutes from various meetings of the Charleston, West Virginia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in the summer of 1918. The minutes in the book span the years 1922 to 1936; during that time, attorney and politician T. Gillis Nutter served as the branch president. Many meetings were held at Garnett High School (founded ca. 1900, sometimes spelled Garnet), an African-American high school in Charleston; branch member Charles Wesley Boyd was the school’s first principal.
As I browsed through the minutes, I started to feel like I was looking at a condensed history of many of the important people and events in West Virginia civil rights history from that time. One thing that stuck out to me was an incident of discrimination in a library, which turned into a court case I had never heard of before: Anderson H. Brown et als. v. the Board of Education of Charleston Independent School District. That’s right, West Virginia has its very own Brown v. Board of Education.
In the plaintiff’s brief, the issue is presented as starting March 13, 1928, when three African-American citizens were refused entry to the Charleston Public Library, then managed by the Board of Education of Charleston Independent School District. However, a deeper look at news articles from the time show that this issue of refusing access to the library based on race goes back to December 1927.
Article from the Charleston Gazette, March 30, 1928
View transcript of article here.
The article also mentions a “petition that T. G. Nutter communicated with the board of education, February 9, 1926, concerning the refusal referred to.” The bound volume of the NAACP Charleston WV branch minutes sheds more light on the events preceding the “petition” and the letter that Nutter wrote.
In a brief entry in the executive committee meeting minutes from January 6, 1928 (seen below), we see that the group had a Grievance Committee which investigated this matter, determined that the allegations were true, decided to write to the school board about it, and determined to go to court if the board didn’t correct its actions.
It is interesting to note that E.L. Powell, chairman of the Grievance Committee, and Anderson H. Brown, appointed to assist him, both followed through with this case; they are listed among the three plaintiffs at the state Supreme Court level. As we’ve already noted, the group’s president was part of the legal team representing the plaintiffs. This level of action speaks to the power, influence, and interests of the local branch of the NAACP.
The promised letter to the Board was dated February 9, 1928, just as the news article reported. A typescript version is included in the minutes (see below).
(Please excuse the fingers in the photos—while this book has stood the test of time, it is bound tightly enough to be a bit delicate today. I didn’t want to stress the binding by pressing the pages flat against a scanner, and the pages don’t lay flat when the book is open.)
T.G. Nutter, who wrote the letter and would later represent the plaintiffs to the WV Supreme Court, began the letter quite politely, in the second paragraph writing “In all my dealings with the board of Education I have always refrained from doing anything that would cause the least embarrassment and I should indeed be happy, along with the other Colored citizens of Charleston, if the Board of its own volition would rescind the recent order in regard to the use of the Public Library.” He also acknowledges that the Board apparently made its decision to discriminate based on a section of legal code which deals with donations to the library—perhaps this Mr. Humphrey mentioned on the second page made his donation contingent on the library serving white people only?
Apparently, Nutter was optimistic in his hope that the Board would agree with his reasoning. Nutter brought the case before a Circuit Court judge; the Petition to the Circuit Court for Kanawha County shows that the case in more detail, and also shows the one sentence reply that the secretary of the Board of Education wrote to Nutter. This transcript of an April 13, 1928 article from the Charleston Gazette describes the result of that suit, in which the judge ruled that the Board was not in violation of the law.
Nutter did not stop there. He and his colleague took the case to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. The result of that case is outlined in this decision and reported on in this article. Many thanks to the West Virginia State Archive for making these and other resources on African-American history in West Virginia available online.
The bound volume is available for research use any time the WVRHC is open, except for Saturdays. Soon, we will have a finding aid posted under collection number A&M 4158.
For additional information on this chapter of the NAACP, see:
Thomas J. Edge. “”An Arm of God”: The Early History of the NAACP in Charleston, West Virginia, 1917-1925.” West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies 7.2 (2013): 1-32. Project MUSE. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. https://muse.jhu.edu/
Library of Congress collection MSS34140, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People records, 1842-1999, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/eadmss.ms008007
For additional information on Garnett High School, see:
Wooster, Hazel P. “Garnet High School.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 28 January 2013. Web. 20 November 2015. http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/2081
Boyd, C.W. “Garnett High School, Charleston, W. Va.” The Institute Monthly 8.3 (1915): 7-9. Web. 20 November 2015. http://library.wvstateu.edu/archives/college_publications/Institute-Monthly/1915-12-High-School-Number.pdf