Black West Virginians Who Made History February 4, 2021
Read about their lives and be inspired for Black History Month. In honor of Black History Month, Beckley resident Doris A. Fields posted a list of 20 great Black West Virginians on Facebook. Her post generated dozens of responses within just a few hours—brief remembrances and names of others as well. We recognized some of Fields’ names, and we wondered who the others were. They’re an incredibly impressive bunch, so we’ll share some of their brief, inspiring bios with you through the month. Here’s our first set. Composer Maceo Pinkard 1897 Bluefield–1962 New York City Everyone’s heard Maceo Pinkard’s infectious 1920s jazz tune “Sweet Georgia Brown.” It’s been recorded by musicians as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald and The Beatles—including Bing Crosby, Thelonius Monk, Cab Calloway, and so many others—and it became even more famous as the theme of the Harlem Globetrotters. Pinkard was precocious, forming his own orchestra and touring as its conductor right after high school. He wrote and produced the all-Black Broadway musical comedy show Liza, which opened in 1922 and ran for 172 performances. He became among the most successful and prolific composers of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and remained an integral part of the vibrant New York City creative scene for decades. After 1940, he focused on his work as a music publisher. Pinkard was inducted in the National Academy of Popular Music’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984. Mathematician Katherine Johnson 1918 White Sulphur Springs–2020 Newport News, Virginia Ms. Johnson may be the best known of this group, having become a household name with the release of the 2016 film Hidden Figures. She was a high school freshman at the age of 10 and graduated from West Virginia State College at the age of 18 with degrees in mathematics and French. After staying home to raise her children, Johnson took a position in 1953 with NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, as a “computer.” Her extraordinary ability with numbers made her an invaluable resource. She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard who, in 1961, became the first American in space. Even after electronic computers came into use, astronaut John Glenn requested that she personally check the calculations before the 1962 flight that made him the first American to orbit the Earth. She contributed to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program.
Johnson worked for NASA until 1986. She’s been awarded several honorary doctorates and, in November 2015, she received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama. Admiration for her continues after her passing in 2020: Just a few days ago, Northrop Grumman named a new spacecraft for her.
Activist Rev. Leon Sullivan 1922 Charleston–2001 Scottsdale, Arizona If you’ve driven in Charleston, you’re familiar with Leon Sullivan Way. When its namesake was just 12, in the mid-1930s, he tried to buy a soft drink in a drugstore on Capitol Street. As he told often later in life, being refused as a customer inspired his lifelong battle against racial prejudice. Sullivan studied theology in New York, then assumed leadership of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. In 1958, he asked Philadelphia’s largest companies to offer young Blacks opportunities by interviewing them. When only two responded positively, he organized a boycott that was so effective, it influenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Over the following decades, Sullivan’s concrete, community-centered activism provided job training to Blacks, developed equitable housing, and invested in small businesses, inspiring similar action across the nation.
At the same time, Sullivan worked internationally, advancing health, literacy, and economic self-determination in sub-Saharan Africa. As a member of the board of directors of General Motors, Sullivan developed a code of conduct in 1977 for companies operating in South Africa, the Sullivan Principles, which played a role in ending apartheid. Later, the Global Sullivan Principles were issued at the United Nations, calling on multinational companies to actively advance human rights and social justice.
Sullivan’s autobiography, Moving Mountains: The Principles and Purposes of Leon Sullivan, formed the basis for the documentary A Principled Man, produced and directed by West Virginia filmmaker Diana Sole Walko—aired from time to time on West Virginia Public Broadcasting and soon to be available on demand.