Kimball War Memorial honors sacrifices of Black WWI veterans

West Virginia

KIMBALL, WV (WOWK) – The Kimball War Memorial is located in the southern coalfields of McDowell County, West Virginia. 

“Listen, you’d be surprised at the number of people that go up and down 52 and have no idea what this building is or why it’s even here,” said Clara Thompson, the memorial’s administrator. 

It’s here to honor the African Americans who served in World War I. 

Inside – a museum with pictures and exhibits showing faces from long ago. 

The building was dedicated back in 1928. 

“It’s the first building of such as this built in this country, not just West Virginia, in this country for African-Americans for World War I,” explained World War II veteran Dr. Howard Wade. 

Wade served in the Pacific with the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. 

The retired college professor grew up about three miles away and used to pass the memorial on his way to school. 

After the war, his American Legion post held meetings in the building. 

“We as a race have served our country from the beginning, and in World War I there were a great many African-Americans that served in that war.” 

But the building is so much more than a war memorial. Over the years, it has become an important cornerstone to the African-American community in Kimball and McDowell County. 

Clara Thompson has been the memorial’s administrator for 15 years. 

“We’ve had quite a few activities here. A lot of history? A lot of history. Believe it, a lot of history here,” Thompson said. 

She said over the years the building was used for NAACP meetings, weddings, concerts, proms, debutante balls, even a temporary school. 

The building also has a tragic history. An arsonist set fire to it in 1991. 

A lot of the original memorabilia was destroyed or lost and it sat vacant for many years. 

Dr. E. Ray Williams, a 100-year-old World War II veteran, was one of the men who fought to restore the building. 

“At one point I was president of the NAACP in the county so that tied right into that building,” Williams said. 

Working with the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, they secured funding for the restoration and the building reopened in 2006. 

And get this, Williams’ father-in-law Harry Neal, Sr. served in World War I and was in the original group back in the 1920s that petitioned McDowell County to let them build this memorial for African-American veterans. 

“He talked about it a bit but he was a very quiet man and he didn’t brag about anything,” Williams said of his father-in-law. 

Williams remembers performing in plays in the building as a kid and said it meant a lot to see the building restored. 

“It’s just history to me now because I’m 100 years old,” he laughed. “So my days enjoying the building as such are over.” 

But he hopes current and future generations can enjoy the building for years to come. 

“I’m a people person so I love it when people come in to visit this building and really see what’s here and the significance of the building,” Thompson said. 

“This building is precious to all of us,” Wade explained. “Now at my age, it’s deeply precious.” 

The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and by appointment. 

The building is also available to rent out for special events. 

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