The occasion; Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Bishop, West Virginia, 88th Anniversary, August 25th, 2019.
After receiving an invitation from Joyce Bennett Sherman, Church Secretary, they came from afar: Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbus, Long Island, Washington, Bluefield, Tazewell and Coalwood. I arrived Thursday, and checked in to our motel of choice, an inn nestled in the foothills of the mountains in Bluefield, Virginia. I was filled with excitement anxious to explore McDowell County, and the West Virginia mining camp villages I had not seen since 1950. On Friday morning, I met Reggie Lambright in Tazewell,VA and followed his equipment laden truck up and over Stoney Ridge Mountain, down into Bishop. As we cleared the mountain and entered into Bishop on the Virginia side, there was a sign that read "Local 6025 UMWA, United Mine Workers of America". I wondered how many locals would know that a black man, Mr. Alonzo "Boots" Lambright, led this Local back in the day, representing mining families, black and white, in southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Mr. Boots was later selected by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to be an election monitor for the first non-racial democratic election in South Africa in 1994. Prior to leaving for South Africa, the monitors were invited to the White House to meet with President Clinton. Mr. Boots was Reggie's father.
Crossing into West Virginia, we parked the truck at Little Zion and Reggie asked if he should drive my car. My response was "Yes of course...if you can drive a stick!" I should have known better. Reggie drove and drove some more. We passed through where Johnstown used to be, now grown over. There was nary a clue that a village once occupied this land. We were briefly in and through Squire and Newhall, where I went for six grade. We rolled through Cucumber, up and over the mountain and down into War, the southernmost city/town in West Virginia, and where I started seventh grade at Excelsior High School. We paused to view the site where Excelsior once stood.
We continued on to Yukon, Canebrake, Coalwood, then up and over the mountain to Welch, the county seat and home of Steve Harvey. From Welch to Kimball and the Kimball World War I Memorial, which was built and dedicated in 1928 as a tribute to black World War I veterans. The Kimball War Memorial Building was the first, and is, the only remaining memorial dedicated to black veterans of World War I, in the United States. Clara Thompson, Administrator/Curator of the Memorial gave us the grand tour including the history of the renovation project to restore this historical monument.
From Kimball it was back over the mountain to Yukon, on to Caretta and Coalwood where Reggie saw Pastor Moore's truck at the country store. We stopped I was introduced to the Pastor and informed him that I would see him that afternoon to help setup for the fish fry. It was then on to Amonate, Berwind, Squire, Johnstown or where Johnstown used to be and back to Bishop. Reggie was moving at a pretty good clip and I may have missed the old village of Canebrake. Except for the mountainous Roadways, I did not recognize many of the villages. Reggie commented that it had been decades since he had traverse some of these roads.
Following this exhilarating tour of southern McDowell county, I reflected on the fact that at onetime nearly 100,000 people populated the county. Reggie estimated that it was once home to at least five high schools. There are now only two and one black church in the southern part of the county, Little Zion Missionary Baptist. The original church was swept off its foundation by flooding. The church was rebuilt and improved. It now has air conditioning, a kitchen, and a dining hall on the lower level with a small parsonage behind the choir stand.
We arrived back at the Church unloaded Reggie's truck and preceded to setup for the fish fry on Saturday. Smiles and friendly banter was the order of the day. What was readily apparent and appreciated by all; the planning for this Anniversary was far above the norm...strategic yet focused; things that were supposed to fit and connect did, and more joy prevailed. I thought of an old adage: you get what you bring, I was truly enjoying helping in the preparation of this August event. Arriving back in Tazewell en route to the inn in Bluefield, my first stop was the car wash.
Early Saturday morning I came down to breakfast at the inn. Lo and behold, there sat Mildred Hairston Washington and Brenda Murphy Calloway. These two ladies have been exceptionally busy over the years.
I think we all know the story of Bluefield State College, one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), that white people took over through subterfuge and violence; reducing/shrinking the black student population by eliminating dormitories, effectively converting the institution into a commuter school, replacing the black administration, all in the process of ignoring and highjacking the schools charter. Mildred is still working diligently with the alumni to rectify some of the slights inflicted by this takeover. The week prior to our arrival she traveled from Ohio to Bluefield for a meeting with the Governor, the college administration and donors, to confer in ongoing efforts to make amends. HBCU's throughout the country are in peril, some have closed because of financial instability, others are on the brink of closure, but none have suffered the fate of Bluefield State College, a violent takeover of a black institution of higher learning. In 1895 Bluefield Colored Institute was established as a teachers college for blacks. Truth and reconciliation does not appear to be on the lips, hearts, or minds of those who now control Bluefield State College, that by federal law, will forever carry the designation of a HBCU, but is now essentially a white school. Mildred...God bless her...does not allowed such nuances to get in the way of of her continuing efforts to rectify, in some way, this devious deception that came into being over time, in the latter half of the 20th Century. Domestic terrorism, as we have witness, comes in many forms, far too often aided and abetted by the state.
Brenda Murphy Calloway, a talented musician, was inducted into the West Virginia All Black Schools Sports & Academic Hall of Fame in 2011. At Excelsior High School she was president of the marching band and played the clarinet. At Knoxville College, she majored in business administration with a minor in music theory. At the Ohio State University, she studied business law while continuing her studies in music theory. She has performed with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Brenda is an organist and a pianist. That same year, Brenda's sister, Mozell (Judy) Murphy Westmoreland, (deceased) was also inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Joining us at the table upon her arrival was Juanita Adams Beaty. Nita is the third child of Cousin Carl and Shirley Adams. The stories of yesteryear began in earnest and did not stop or subside during the weekend. The age gaps of the attendees facilitated the richness of our shared experiences. That afternoon at the fish fry, the stories and memories continued unabated. Subsequent to the fish fry, many of us huddled at Susette's house in Tazewell. Susette is the youngest sibling of Cousins Carl and Shirley and, I had thought the quietest. Not so. It seemed that the common thread connecting these former children of the village, now senior citizens, was the whippings we all got back in the day. Sharing our stories of yesteryear, I was surprised to hear that I was not the only child to get a whipping away from home while out and about in the village.
At the fish fry I met Natalie Lambright, sister of Reggie. Natalie was also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011. Natalie, an educator, graduated from West Virginia University with a BS in elementary education, an MA degree from Marshall University, and a Doctorate of Education from Georgia Southern University. At the induction ceremony in 2011, Natalie and Reggie's father, Mr. Alonza "Boots" Lambright and Cousin Carl Adams were also inducted (posthumously) into the Hall of Fame. These two village elders were well known for their lifelong civic and political activism.
I had said elsewhere, that the two bright spots in Bishop are the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church (WV) and the Alexander United Methodist Church (VA). This was a faith based supposition that turned out to be precisely on the mark. These congregations have been involved interacting, cooperating, and sharing praises for some 30-35 years, a cooperative agreement forged by the village elders of the day. The current pastors, Rev. Joseph Moore of Little Zion (18 yrs) and Rev. Daniel Brady of Alexander (2 yrs), have revived this covenant to warrant continued discipleship in the valley.
Sunday service was preceded by a fish fry on Saturday. I queried if there are donations asked for or an admission to the fish fry. The response was quick and direct: "No! There is no charge and we do not ask for donations. All are welcome." The parishioners at Little Zion are few in number yet extraordinary in faith, unity and accomplishments. The fish fry was a huge success. Attended by black and white residents, it was a gourmet's delight. Everybody...male and female...can and do cook in these parts and, it appears that no one uses recipes.
The legacy of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church is filled with joyful memories. Sunday, August 25, was another chapter of this legacy. Pastor Moore worked diligently alongside a few volunteers to setup for the fish fry the day before. He may have then gotten the inspiration for his sermon following all that friendly banter. Shortly after the opening of Sunday service, Pastor Moore called for testimonies from the pews. Ernest Simpson, husband of Yvonne Adams Simpson who is the oldest of the Adams siblings, and then Yvonne herself and Brenda all attempted to stand simultaneously to give the first testimony. Ernie was quickest to rise and immediately began to speak. Brenda sat back down. Yvonne protested mildly that she wanted to speak first. Ernie, undaunted, had already started to speak. Ernie is not from Bishop or West Virginia. When Ernie and Yvonne got married they would often come down from Long Island to visit. Word is, that on such visits Ernie would go up one side of the street and down the other with a few hand tools making small repairs on homes where needed, so much so, that the cry in the village became "When is Ernie coming back?" Upon marrying Yvonne, Ernie was welcomed into the Adams family with open arms and the village adopted him as a favorite son. Ernie availed himself to the character building teachings of the village elders. He began his testimony speaking about the legacy of our elders. He concluded by saying, "Pastor, I don't know you but I know your truck". Now Ernie knows how a finely tuned engine should sound. Apparently Pastor Moore's truck is well tuned. But, Ernie continued, "I note that you have a single exhaust. Don't you think you need a second?" By this time Pastor Moore and the congregation was rolling in laughter. Ernie had set the tone, and many testimonies followed. Immediately after the morning service, more of the home cooked cuisine was served.
Pastor Moore and First Lady Blanche Moore prepared their favorite specialities as did Joyce, Reggie and Mary Lambright. Shortly thereafter, some of the former children of the village had to depart for their journey back home. I was among the number that remained for the afternoon service. There were two visiting church choirs and members from their congregations. Natalie gave the welcome address. Sister Heath gave the response while standing at her pew. She said she was blessed to be able to attend the service and that she was widowed after 55 years of marriage. She then married a 90 year old who spoiled her. Widowed again, she said she is through with the institution of marriage unless Michelle Obama is willing to give up on Barack!
The Holy Spirit was omnipresent throughout our visit in the mountainous countryside. While economic opportunities are far less than during the days of our times here, the strength of character of the people is steadfast. The leadership of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church is unselfish, dedicated, laser focused; it is to be commended, and hopefully, emulated by religious communities everywhere.
Donations to this small church that leads by example, can be forwarded to the Treasurer; Mr. Reginald Lambight, Sr., P. O. Box 64 Tazewell, VA 24651.
The Kimball War I Memorial, the only Memorial dedicated to black World I veterans also was the home of the first black American Legion Post. Some 1500 black men from McDowell County volunteered for service during World War I. More information about this historical memorial can be obtained from Ms. Clara Thompson. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the morning service I donated several books to the church; 2 copies of my memoir Almost Heaven, It Wasn't Even Close, A Legacy of Love, available from my website: www.loveyourneighborpublishing.com.
1 copy of For Lovers Only, a cook book by Sherry Winston, a jazz flutist and an old friend. The book is available from her website: www.sherrywinston.com.
1 copy of Growing Up in the United States of America; A Nurse Encounters Starvation in the Uninsured, by Joan Oxendine a nurse practitioner who grew up in Beckley, West Virginia. Joan is a fellow parishioner at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington. The book is available from Amazon.
1 copy of Trailblazer by Dorothy Gilliam the first black female reporter at the Washington Post. Dorothy is also a fellow parishioner at Metropolitan. Her book is also available from Amazon.
1 copy of Becoming by Michelle Obama, likewise available from Amazon.
The legacy of our elders is enduring and continues to serve us exceptionally well. Their values became the norm for the children of the village; norms that are clearly apparent today, and hopefully well into the distance future. God willing, I am looking forward to the 89th Anniversary!!!
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