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Historic site was orphan home

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Oct. 01, 2008 @ 11:49 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Over the years, many motorists driving by no doubt have glimpsed the distinctive red brick building perched on a hilltop overlooking U.S. 60 East and wondered about the story behind it.

This is that story -- or at least part of it.

Although it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the former West Virginia Colored Children's Home has been all but forgotten for the past 50 years. Now, it's suddenly very much in the news -- and at the center of a tug-of-war.

Located behind the Prestera Center and the West Virginia State Police barracks, the three-story building with its massive white columns is the largest of five structures on a 13-acre tract of land owned by Marshall University. Now both the Cabell County Board of Education and Prestera want to buy the property.

School officials say the land is at the top of their list of potential sites for a new middle school. Building the school, they say, would require demolishing all the current structures, including the former Colored Children's Home.

Prestera says acquiring the tract would allow it to bring its Huntington operations, now scattered in several locations around town, to a consolidated campus and enable it to expand the mental health and addiction services it offers. It envisions renovating the former Colored Children's Home but has expressed a willingness to preserve its historic attributes.

Although the building in question was built in 1922-1923, the former West Virginia Colored Children's Home had its beginning more than 20 years earlier and in a community on the other side of the state.

Dr. Alan B. Gould, executive director of the John Deaver Drinko Academy at Marshall, long has been interested in the history of the Colored Children's Home. He notes that extensive documentation about the home and its founder, the Rev. Charles E. McGhee, was included in the application that Marshall filed in 1997 when it successfully sought to have the home placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to that documentation, the home had its beginnings in Bluefield in 1899 when McGhee chartered the private Colored Orphans Home and Industrial School Corporation.

Born in Franklin County, Va., in 1858, McGhee was mostly self-taught, having received only a rudimentary education before his father's death forced him to leave school to help support his family. It's not known when he moved to West Virginia, but by the 1880s, he was living and preaching in Charleston and by the 1890s in Bluefield. There he joined with other concerned community members to found the Bluefield Colored Institute. Although primarily intended to train teachers, the institute welcomed all interested blacks. Many who enrolled were barely literate.

While the institute served the needs of black adults and teenagers, McGhee was concerned about younger black children and determined to do something to help them.

The documentation submitted in the National Register application quotes McGhee's daughter, Mary Hairston, as saying that her father's determination to help black children get an education may have been rooted in a family tragedy. McGhee's brother-in-law was killed in a coal mining accident leaving his sister with no financial support to raise her children, much less provide them with an education.

After incorporating his new school for youngsters, McGee took an option on a tract of land in Central City, at that time still a separate town just west of Huntington. But the option expired before he could raise enough money to buy the property. He instead established his school at Blue Sulphur Springs in Greenbrier County. The stay at Blue Sulphur was brief, however, as circumstances described only as "certain antagonisms" forced the school to again relocate.

"Without a doubt, those 'antagonisms' were racial," says Gould. "Many Greenbrier County residents had close ties to Virginia and the segregationist views that still prevailed in the Old Dominion at that time."

Leaving Greenbrier County behind, McGhee returned to the Huntington area and purchased a large tract of farmland along Norway Avenue, east of the downtown.

There, the students themselves built a small brick building to house the school, which initially was solely supported by McGhee's fundraising activities. "Please help the poor Orphan Children" was the plea on the back of postcards he distributed that pictured the school's brass band.

But beginning in 1903, McGhee was able to obtain $1,500 a year in state funding. And ultimately, in 1911, the state purchased the school from him for $10,000 and renamed it the West Virginia Colored Orphans Home.

McGhee remained as the home's superintendent after the state took it over.

The students living at the home were orphaned children and neglected youngsters who were taken into state custody. The home offered academic classes, but its young charges also spent much of their time taking care of the home's extensive farm and orchard.

Mary Hairston recalled that about this time an instructor from Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama came to the home to help.

McGhee and Washington were contemporaries and were both born in Franklin County, Va. Both became active in the Baptist Church in the Kanawha Valley and both ultimately became dedicated educators with strong ties to the state's black community.

"Certainly the two men had much in common and so may have corresponded with each other, just as they surely did with other black leaders," says Gould. "But Booker T. Washington had left Kanawha County before McGhee arrived there, and so it seems unlikely they were what we would view as friends. In fact, there's no evidence they ever met."

McGhee resigned from the home in 1914, after building it from a temporary schoolroom in Bluefield to a state-supported institution that served children from across West Virginia. The historical record offers no explanation for his resignation. In any event, he went on to become a successful Huntington businessman, operating the McVernon Hotel and Restaurant. The 1922 Huntington City Directory indicates the hotel was located at 911 8th Ave. He died May 7, 1937.

The home's new superintendent was James Levi Hill, a graduate of Kittrell College in North Carolina and former principal of a school in Martinsville, Va. In 1920, he was succeeded by Isaac M. Carper of Charleston, who would go on to become director of the West Virginia Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics.

On April 15, 1920, fire destroyed the home, and the 35 orphans living there were temporarily placed in foster homes. The Legislature immediately voted funds to rebuild the home, and it is this structure, built at a cost of $60,000 and opened in 1923, that is at the center of the current controversy. The home's architect is unknown but design similarities suggest it was the work of the same individual who designed a number of other state buildings at the time.

In 1924, another building was built nearby to house the State Industrial School for Colored Girls.

Girls at the school received domestic training, and both boys and girls were taught farming skills. The institution's official policy was to keep children in the home only until good private homes could be found for them. As a result, the education and vocational training offered them was very limited, since they were only supposed to be residents for a short period of time.

By the early 1930s, the facility's name had been changed again. What had been the Colored Orphans Home was now the Colored Children's Home.

Youngsters in the first to sixth grades were taught academic subjects in a classroom at the home, which was considered to be part of the Cabell County school system.

After sixth grade, the home's students were bused into Huntington to attend Douglass Junior-Senior High School, the city's black school. Still standing, the Douglass building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 through the efforts of Gould and the late Cabell County School Superintendent Joe Slash. Now named Douglass Centre, it houses a number of community programs.

During the 1940s, the Colored Children's Home finally expanded its vocational classes, introducing automobile mechanics, electricity, sheet metal work, printing and power sewing.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in the schools. In 1956, in the wake of that historic decision, the state closed the Colored Children's Home. The facility briefly was used as the West Virginia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Men and Women but in 1961 was transferred to Marshall.

The Prestera Center and State Police barracks subsequently were built on the portion of the property adjacent to U.S.60, while Marshall has used the hilltop section for University Heights, a student apartment facility for married students.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a half dozen books on local history.

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