Rediscovering “The Block”

Black History Month

CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – Few today could tell you anything about Garnet High school – an all-Black school in Charleston. 

But Don Epps can!  He walked these hallways until graduation in 1955. 

Epps said he and his peers faced a lot of adversity being Black in segregated Charleston. 

“I think because of the adversity that it made the school more tight-knit and it made it stronger,” Epps said. 

Epps lived in St. Albans 13 miles from the school and traveled each day by bus.’ 

He said the bus picked up the Black children around 6 a.m. before the white students — then took the Black students home around 4:30 p.m. after the white kids had been taken home from their all-white schools. 

“Get up early, stay late. Yeah, that was the pattern,” Epps said. 

Garnet High was in “The Block” — a dynamic part of Charleston’s Black community in the early to mid-1900s. 

“It was busy. It was bustling. There were people on the streets all the time,” Epps recalled. 

“The Block” ran from Washington Street East to Smith Street and Capitol Street to Broad Street — which is now Leon Sullivan Way. 

Blacks weren’t allowed to go to white restaurants, stores, or hotels in the city so they opened businesses for themselves. 

Epps played basketball and baseball for Garnet High and spent a lot of time in “The Block” — where he says he always felt welcome. 

“I knew that I could go in the restaurant, I could sit down. I could go in the movie. I could do this or that,” Epps said. 

“It was a very vibrant cultural center for African-Americans,” explained Dr. Billy Joe Peyton, a history professor at West Virginia State University. 

He said “The Block’s” pride and joy was the upscale, Ferguson Hotel. 

“The Ferguson Hotel had a lot of nice amenities, also had a barber shop, a theater, a number of stores,” Peyton said. 

Louis Armstrong was among those to perform in “The Block’s” various clubs. 

“And the names I’ve heard include Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Joe Lewis the boxer, Ella Fitzgerald,” said Peyton. 

With all of those great performers coming through town, white people would go to the clubs in The Block, too, even if it was discouraged. 

“White folks knew that The Block was a place where you could have a lot of fun and listen to the best music that you could find anywhere,” Peyton explained. 

Garnet closed in 1956 and became John Adams Middle School. 

Two decades later, the original name was restored – but modified. 

The Garnet Career Center offers programs for adults in automotive technology, practical nursing, phlebotomy technician, and medical assisting. 

Principal Sue Sweat feels a great responsibility to protect the school’s rich history. 

“We really take great pride in keeping everything clean and trying as much as we can to preserve the way that the building looked originally,” she said. 

“The Block’s” history ended when schools became integrated, the interstate was built through town, and neighborhoods were redeveloped. 

Black residents were forced from their homes. They moved to other parts of the city. Some just left town entirely. 

“A lot of the residents, African-American residents I think were promised a lot of things that did not come to pass,” Peyton said. 

The Ferguson Hotel caught fire in the 1960s and was eventually torn down.  Two hotels are now located where the Ferguson once stood. 

Only a few of the original buildings in the block are left and they’re on The National Register of Historic Places. 

But there are efforts underway to let people know about “The Block” — which was made a citywide historic district in 2011. 

“I think it’s great to at least preserve at least the memory of The Block,” Peyton said. 

“A sense of pride is to have your legacy to be known by somebody,” Epps said.  

And Epps doesn’t want people to forget what was once here. 

“They don’t even know that there was a high school. They don’t even know that there was a Black high school. That there was a Garnet High School with a legacy and with renowned people who went to the school,” he said. 

Epps said some of Garnet’s graduates include journalist Tony Brown, heart surgeon John Norman, and civil rights leader Leon Sullivan. 

“The Block” was part of the larger “Triangle District,” another important part of Charleston’s Black community at the time. 

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