On October 14, 1980, Stella Fuller Day was proclaimed by the mayor of Huntington, WV to acknowledge her lifelong efforts in helping the poor and disadvantaged of that community. And in 2008 she was posthumously inducted into the Greater Huntington Wall of Fame for her 60 years of service. But she wasn’t always so well honored.
Fuller joined the local chapter of the Salvation Army in 1916, and for the next quarter century her humanitarian instincts blossomed. Fuller attained the title of “Envoy Fuller” in the Army and headed a new branch that opened at Johnson’s Lane in Huntington, where she built a recreational program with the assistance of the WPA, consisting of softball and basketball teams. In 1941 the Army was considering building a new outpost ‘to be dedicated to Envoy Stell A. [sic] Fuller who will complete twenty-five years of service on October 1.’
And that’s when it all came to a head.
“In the time that Stella Fuller had served [in the Army], about ten commanders had come and gone, each having to adjust to the community and to the local personnel while establishing his own authority,” writes Nancy Whear in ‘Missing Chapters: West Virginia Women in History.’ “Officially there could never be any question as to who had the authority; but the person who’d been on the spot for 25 years, earning an exceptional amount of independence and building wide community appreciation, had an authority of a different sort. It was a classic setup for confrontation; the only surprise is that it had not come sooner.
“The overt cause of the rift was the softball program which had been breaking the Army’s strict Sabbath rule with Sunday games. The league teams, which had had good years but had never won a state or tri-state tournament, surprised local fans with a stunning victory in a tournament in Charleston, won another round at Elkins, and were selected to represent West Virginia in a regional meet.
“The sports page was full of the feats of “Envoy Stella Fuller’s Salvation Army Outpost team.” The phrase “managed by Envoy Fuller” and the picture of the team with Fuller prominent on the back row were probably not very soothing to the already unhappy corps. There were outside complaints to [official post commander] Major Morris about the Sunday games. They were ordered stopped, but they continued.
“With society’s attention on the War rather than on social problems, the resources of the Salvation Army were strained. To Mrs. Fuller the success of the teams demonstrated the healthiness of the youth programs and justified the cost. But to the Army it was an extravagance for a program which not only flouted the rules, but mostly benefitted persons not involved in their religious mission.
“The roots of the strain went much deeper than softball. To the organization her activities represented improper independence and outright insubordination. She had overstepped her position. In reality she had outgrown it; her capabilities, experience, and personality equipped her for high-level management, but there was no possibility within the Salvation Army’s structure for her to be the manager.
“Lines of loyalty were drawn and sides had to be taken. The dispute reached the papers in January 1943. There had been a visit for consultation by the division commander who was, by coincidence, the brother of the earlier commander under whom Envoy Fuller had so freely developed her outpost.
“In the meantime Fuller had privately consulted the Volunteers of America about starting a chapter in Huntington. The Army’s Board of Advisors was put in an awkward position an a few resigned to side with Mrs. Fuller.
“The formal break came through another classic impasse: she was offered a contract which she felt she could not sign. Though it did give her charge of the outpost, it had other unacceptable restrictions. The evening newspaper headed its story “Envoy Fuller Ousted from S.A., She Says.” But the morning paper followed with “Stella Fuller Resigns Post.”
“She claimed she was pressured to sign before she could meet with the advisors. Major Morris’ rebuttal insisted that when she did not sign by the specified date, her resignation was “of an ‘automatic nature’ and not due to any action, official or otherwise, on his part.”
“It was not quite over, for public and private accusation, rumor and complaint on both sides continued for months, carried on in Letters to the Editor, poison pen letters, and doubtless in many heated verbal encounters.
“In late February 1943 a long ‘Huntington Advertiser’ story on the upcoming opening of the Volunteers of America listed its advisory board and outlined its program, with ‘Captain’ Stella Fuller in command. The announcement was premature, since the city’s Public Solicitations Committee ultimately turned down the VOA application.
“In fact, the program was already in place informally in a building rented by Mrs. Fuller. She had opened on January 10, in a spot very near the [S.A.] outpost, with very little except her own resources and the good will and volunteer help of the neighborhood. Many times in years to come she would express her gratitude at the city’s rejection of the Volunteers of America.
“For now there was only one way to go: an independent settlement with no confusion as to who would pilot its course. The incorporators (later the board of directors) included prominent persons from a wide range of occupations: lawyer, doctor, industrialists, school principal, labor leader. The years of association with the whole spectrum of the population now made this support available. The board had no trouble selecting the name: the Stella Fuller Settlement was born!”
Under Fuller’s leadership, the settlement went on to expand into the area’s largest haven for the deprived and homeless. The woman who’d been snubbed for the Salvation Army post’s top position spent the last 37 years of her life, more time than all the years she’d spent with the Army, continuing to minister to the needs of Huntington’s poorest, but this time doing so her own way.
Sources: “Stella Fuller gave her time to help the needy,” The Herald-Dispatch [Huntington], September 30, 2008
“2008 Wall of Fame inductees announced,” The Herald-Dispatch [Huntington], August 14, 2008
‘Missing Chapters: West Virginia Women in History,’ West Virginia Women’s Commission, Fuller profile by Nancy Whear, 1983