Sharing Black History Month info

In my heart, I knew it was Black History Month throughout February, but I had Ambrose Bolling of Weirton bring it to focus in my mind when he visited our office to see me on Monday.

He always starts his conversations by asking “Did you know” questions, and on some I am quite fuzzy.

The question, “What do you know about Dunbar School in Weirton?” left me a little short-sighted. I knew it was a school in Weirton, both elementary and high school specifically for black students, but after that my mind hit a blank wall. After all, I am from Smithfield.

Now I find that the school, named after poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, opened in the fall of 1917 as a grade school.

Prior to 1932, black students wishing to attend high school had to attend a school in Wheeling, called Lincoln High, or Grant and Wells high schools in Steubenville.

Because of overcrowding in neighboring high schools, the Weirton Presbyterian Church that had been an abandoned building on Avenue F, was leased in early 1932 and while being renovated, the classes were held at Mt. Olive Baptist Church. The school officially opened on Sept. 28, 1932.

This information was obtained from a Feb. 3, 2013, story by Craig Howell, The Weirton Daily Times managing editor.

Ambrose Bolling – now I have studied and know something about Dunbar Elementary and high schools, and we will proceed.

I will get to the heart of why Bolling climbed the steps leading to the newsroom that seem to make even hearty climbers a bit breathless. He had information on Hattie Lewis, born in October 1908, in McDonald, Pa., 23 miles from Weirton, as she was a teacher at Dunbar for many years.

She grew up to receive a master’s degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in library science from Duquesne University and was a very talented piano player.

Through this schooling, she became a public school teacher at Dunbar School, a career that lasted for 38 years and brought an education to many students in the Weirton area.

Lewis wasn’t done with providing educational information to the public. She became a librarian at the Mary H. Weir Public Library for eight years as well. She never married – teaching the children of others was her life’s work. She died in March 1986.

Her quest for teaching others likely was passed on to her two nephews, Matthew and Marvin Lewis, who came from McDonald, Pa., as well.

Matthew is noted for receiving a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. His winning photography was the first ever awarded for a portfolio of color photos and the first Washington Post photographer to win. He was a member of the staff at the Post for 11 years and hired 12 photographers during his tenure. This made it the photo department at the Post with the highest ratio of minorities in the newsroom. And this group went on to win two Pulitzers, National Awards and covered many Olympics.

His dad, Matthew Sr., had a photo apartment in Pittsburgh and started as a sports photographer with the Pittsburgh Courier.

In his younger years, Hattie Lewis had stepped in with advice to apply to Morgan State College in Maryland with the visual department. He calls Morgan State his learning tree for after years of hard work, it led him to the prized Pulitzer Prize.

He was told once, “All of your many 35 mm camera lenses are life adjectives and adverbs – each one, when properly used in the right situation, can add impact – tell your story with emotion and heart, all on a single frame.”

He resides in North Carolina now, is still taking pictures and making speeches.

His most recent endeavor was to share images of a town called Thomasville. He and his son, Kevin, began to document people, places and events, starting with the 25th-annual Memorial Day parade.

It was made into an 80-page essay, “The Veterans Keepsake Calendar.” “We just give a little history in what we hope is a keepsake calendar of Thomasville,” he said of the town where he now resides.

You might have recognized the name of Marvin Lewis Jr., the younger brother. He is the National Football League head coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, and many sports fans know about his career.

“All this talent is from one family from McDonald, Pa., just a short ride from Weirton, and a teacher spent many hours educating the young people at Dunbar,” Bolling said with a smile.

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Another Black History story that I know more about continues through the tiny community of McIntre. They have a church that is still providing inspirational and spiritual messages to its members, a place of worship that became an actual building in 1891.

Before that, land was cleared for outdoor services, followed by a log cabin built across from where the Shaffer AME Chapel was later built in 1921.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As early as 1816, a campaign known as the Underground Railroad was organized for slaves wanting to escape ownership by their masters, according to Michele Freeman of Smithfield and now residing in the Dixon Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Wintersville. She is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Bedford, who liberated seven families of his slaves in 1825.

The movement was organized by the Quakers from the townships of Smithfield and Mount Pleasant. Some areas of the country were impossible for slaves not to be detected in passing from station to station, but once reaching Jefferson County, they knew they were in a safe haven.

After Bedford of Charles City, liberated the families of slaves, Benjamin Ladd moved them to Jefferson County.

Freeman, who turns 61 on Feb. 25, has a terrific memory on the history of McIntyre and can recite it from the very beginning, citing dates, places and names.

The families were placed on a farm near Stillwater Creek in Harrison County but drifted apart, finding employment with neighboring farmers, she noted.

In 1829, Bedford gave liberation papers to families of his slaves and sent them to McIntyre, providing transportation, food, clothing and animals to work.

Bedford was chief of the colony and received additional property because of his large family. Land was divided into parcels of three to 15 acres and distributed according to the size of the family.

There are members of the St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Smithfield who are now attending the Shaeffer AME Chapel, due to the demise of their building of worship.

The AME church on Green Street was declared unsafe several years back, as it was sinking into the earth. It has since been condemned.

Some of the church members attended the Smithfield Christian Church, and held their own services there following the message of Christian Church Pastor Wilford Simeral. They had their own song books in the pews and used the music equipment for their musical portion of the sermon.

Then the members were denied a church by higher authorities, defining it as a congregation without a building. The services were discontinued in the Christian Church, but a few of the members still attend the Christian Church.

There was much history in the brick church with the wood paneled sanctuary on Green Street. The singing of the St. Paul AME Church has gone silent, but former members still take part in community church services in the Smithfield and Piney Fork area.

A program and dinner were held at St. Florian Hall in 2013 celebrating the history of the church, and then it came to a halt.

(McCoy, a resident of Smithfield, is food editor and a staff columnist for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. She can be contacted at emccoy@heraldstaronline.com.)