The nation’s first and only building memorializing African American veterans of WWI is located in Kimball, W.Va. and Thursday evening a celebration of Black History Month will take place there that highlights the work of two previously unrecognized poets from the era.
The two poets were sisters from Beckley who at age 17 and 18 attended the West Virginia Colored Institute, which is now West Virginia State College. An 83 page hard back book featuring their poetry was published in 1919.
Discovering the Book
In the late 1970’s Jean Barnes Peters found a copy of War Poems sitting on a bookshelf in her house in Charleston, W.Va. The authors, Ada and Ethel Peters, were half-sisters to Jean’s husband, Joseph Cromwell Peters.
“And he said I can’t tell you about this book, those young ladies would have been 20 years older than I am,” Barnes Peters said.
Joseph Cromwell Peters, who is now deceased, never met his two half-sisters and didn’t know anything about them because their mother and his father divorced before he was born.
The little book fascinated Jean Peters and she would occasionally pick it up a read some of the poetry, which she describes as long, long narratives.
The preface in the book reads:
The sole intention of the authors in writing these poems is to show the Negro’s loyalty to the stars and stripes in the war with Germany and to show the need of unity of all men in the fight for democracy.
“But eventually I started to scrutinize what they were saying and it was protest, which seemed unusual for teenage girls in 1919 in rural West Virginia to be even knowledgeable in WWI just before and just after and how badly Black soldiers were treated,” Barnes Peters said.
Sharing the Book
The fifth poem, written by Ada Peters, is called The Slacker. It was this poem that caused Jean Peters to bring the little book to the attention of Joel Beeson, West Virginia University visual journalism and new media professor, and his students.
Mrs. Peters was invited to attend an event back in 2011 at the Kimball Memorial for an exhibit the students created on World War One soldiers.
“And there was a poster that said ‘The Colored man is no slacker,’” Beeson said. “And she said there’s a poem in this book I have called The Slacker.”
The poem begins:
God forbid ere man was born
To crush honor beneath his feet
That the light of day should dawn
Upon one, who from duty flees
While on Freedom’s Bleeding Alter,
His Noble Comrades have bled
But he stands idle a slacker
Disgraced before living and dead.
“These young women who are 17 and 18 were commenting very intelligently on their times,” Beeson said. “And the things they were saying were protest, they were asking for civil rights and this was back in 1919 before the internet, before television, before radio.”
So Beeson and his students took on a new project that includes an interactive web site called War Poems where you can page through the book, read the poetry, learn about its history, and the story of how Jean Barnes Peters found it on the bookshelf in her house.
Beeson said one goal is reaching young people through new and interactive media.
“That’s the language and that’s the medium that young people use,” he said. “So hopefully this is a site where we can get young people enthusiastic and inspired about these two young women whose voices were kind of left in the past and we’re trying to bring that to life.”
Engaging the Public
An event took place Thursday evening from 7-9 p.m. at the Kimball War Memorial that included a demonstration of the web site and presentations from Beeson, Barnes Peters and some of the students who worked on the project.
Beeson’s class is also worked with classes at Mountain View Middle and Mountain View High Schools Friday, where students learned about the War Poems site and Kimball Memorial. They also participated in a poetry contest in which they Tweeted poems from the web site.