McDOWELL COUNTY, WV (WVNS) — In 2023, the Kimball World War I Memorial in McDowell County is the only American memorial in the country kept in honor of black WWI veterans, the National Coal Heritage Area group reported.

The three-story building, set on a hillside in McDowell County, was built in 1928, as local veterans returned from foreign battlefields.

The Equal Justice Initiative reported in 2019 that black veterans returning from World War I faced riots, even lynchings when they returned home.

But it was also an era when many black veterans, in both small towns and larger cities, began demanding their Constitutional rights.

Black veterans and their families approached McDowell County officials to ask for a memorial honoring Black veterans, after a similar memorial was established for white veterans at the county level, Kimball World War I Memorial Administrative Coordinator Clara Thompson told 59News.

Thompson said county officials instructed the veterans, who fought for democracy on foreign soil, to find a property for their memorial. Initially, she said, they sought property in nearby Welch. None was available, so the building, which features a community center, a kitchen facility and exhibits, was built in Kimball.

“We have a lot of people that really don’t that this building exists because they look at it and they think, oh, what’s that courthouse doing up there?” Thompson said. “Then, when they come inside, they are amazed.”

The memorial has a focus also on coal mining, since Kimball and Welch are share storied mining histories.

According to administrators, the memorial was the first of its kind in the country, and as of February 2023 it is the only memorial specifically dedicated to black WWI veterans.  

Thompson said the memorial has as much relevance and a similar message in 2023 as it did when black veterans went to the McDowell County commission to say they wanted their government to honor Black contributions to American democracy many years ago.

“History is history,” added Thompson. “And you will never erase the history or the contributions of Black America. Never. It’s a part of our history. It’s American history.”