History helps us learn more about who we are. When we do not know our own history, however, our power and dreams can be hindered. The contributions and accomplishments of women have often been overlooked and omitted from mainstream culture and historical interpretation. In order to expand knowledge of West Virginia history, a team of emerging history professionals from Morgantown has been working to fill that void.
Eliza Newland (Collections and Program Manager, Watts Museum), Karly Kovalcik (Public History MA Candidate, WVU), and Lacey Bonar (History PhD Candidate, WVU) created a West Virginia Women’s History Tour as an interactive component of an upcoming exhibit at Arts Monongahela. The exhibit, “IN.EXclusive,” is designed to commemorate Women’s History Month (celebrated during the month of March) and includes artwork by six West Virginia artists. The artwork, inspired by women from West Virginia’s past and present, is accompanied by a unique installation design and the interactive tour.
Traveling from places like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Community Building in Morgantown to the Pearl S. Beck Birthplace Foundation and Museum in Hillsboro, the tour (accessible online: http://bit.ly/2l4bodA) shares the stories of more than twenty women who are influential in the history of West Virginia.
The team used technology to reach members of the public where they are, creating a series of connected entries in Clio (theclio.com). Created by Marshall University history professor Dr. David Trowbridge, Clio is the first non-commercial website and mobile application that connects users to historical and cultural sites across the United States. Each entry provides reliable and concise information, connecting the public to scholarship, related websites, and other media.
‘Cedar Grove’ is one of the entries made specifically for this tour. Also known as the William Tompkins House, Cedar Grove is a historic home located in Cedar Grove, Kanawha County, West Virginia.
The house stands as a tribute to the growth of the Kanawha Valley in western Virginia prior to the Civil War, which was largely due to the salt industry—an industry powered by rented slaves from Eastern Virginia.
The home was built in 1844 by William Tompkins, who had moved to the Kanawha Valley around 1818. He joined his brother-in-law, Aaron Stockton, in a salt business and soon gained some advantage and prestige by developing several improvements in drilling techniques. Around 1841, Tompkins became the first person in the region to use natural gas as the fuel to extract salt from saltwater (previously coal or wood were used). Many believe that this was the first time that natural gas was used for industrial purposes.
During the Civil War, Cedar Grove withstood the pressures of passing Confederate and Union troops, despite being on an important route. This is explained by the fact that Mrs. Tompkins was an aunt of Ulysses S. Grant and possessed a letter from him to display to troops.
Despite the letter of support from Grant, the Tompkins were likely Confederate sympathizers; they were slave owners and the house was the seat of a plantation that stretched along the Kanawha River. The bricks that built Cedar Grove were bricks that slaves made by hand. During this time period, thousands of slaves were rented from Eastern Virginia by salt makers like Tompkins and Stockton to do the labor intensive work of making salt.
Well-known West Virginia writer Mary Lee Settle (1918 – 2005) is a descendant of the Tompkins. Born in Charleston, Mary Lee Settle spent summers at Cedar Grove with her grandmother, Addie Tomkins. For many, Cedar Grove is the imaginative wellspring of her writing.
Mary Lee Settle is the author of 21 books, including ‘The Beulah Quintet’ — a five volume work of historical fiction that spans two continents and 300 years of American history. Each book is set at a moment of transition, a time right on the edge of deep societal change.
Beulah Land, where the novels unfold, is a fictional place grounded in the reality of Settle’s family home place at Cedar Grove, West Virginia. She won the National Book Award in 1978 for her novel ‘Blood Tie.’
Catherine Moore recently produced a radio documentary entitled Cedar Grove (listen to it here: http://www.cedargrovestory.com/). It is a story about bridging the past and the future, using the work of Mary Lee Settle and the voices of women from Cedar Grove to learn about navigating the current moment of uncertainty in the coalfields of West Virginia.
Another location featured on the tour is the historic marker located near the Tucker County Courthouse memorializing Carrie Williams vs. the Board of Education Tucker County, 1892. In response to a school board policy that created a much shorter school term for African American children in Tucker County, black educator Carrie Williams challenged the board’s racially discriminatory policy and won her case.
As a result, black children were able to spend the same number of weeks in school as white children in the decades before the schools of Tucker County were integrated.
This was also an important decision for black educators who had previously earned much less than their white counterparts. The historic marker was erected in honor of the landmark court case in 2013.
To learn more about the other women, visit the tour’s website (http://bit.ly/2l4bodA ) or stop by Arts Monongahela during Women’s History Month. The Opening Reception for “IN.EXclusive” is on Friday, March 3 from 5-8PM at Arts Monongahela (201 High Street, Morgantown, WV). Facebook event link: https://www.facebook.com/events/380736818968876/