Black prosperity and hidden history were the topics of discussion on Friday at the ‘Those Who Came Before Us’ video premiere at the Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre.
Attendees made their way into the auditorium to learn more about the rich “afro-lachian” history many locals know little to nothing about. Executively produced by Singer and Visual Artist Lady D, who is better known as WV’s First Lady Of Soul, the series gives an in-depth look at black achievement and artistry throughout time and throughout the state.
The event kicked off with a brief introduction from Lady D, herself, who said she wants to “show that we are here and that the things we have done and are still doing, matters.”
Special Guest and Beckley native Xavier Oglesby then shared memories of his Stratton High School days. Now known as ‘Stratton Elementary’, Stratton High School was the first all-black high school in Raleigh County. The school opened in 1919 and graduated 2,786 students over the course of 48 years. Many graduates from Stratton High School went on to become prominent doctors, teachers, lawyers, nurses, engineers and business owners. These graduates also went on to create an abundance of black businesses that ran from the top of South Fayette Street all the way to Raleigh Hill, described by Oglesby as “a Black Wall Street”.
Oglesby said East Beckley once had a strong sense of community that went beyond the walls of Stratton and that teachers were well-connected to both students and their parents. He also said students were proud to be from West Virginia and to attend a school that seemed to breed ambition.
“We took pride in being ‘the best of the best’,” Oglesby said.
After a brief Q&A between Oglesby and attendees, Osage native and Appalachian Soul Singer Aristotle Jones hit the stage. The “Appalachian Soul Man” performed several songs including his hit song “The Talk”, which is written around a dialogue between a black parent and their black child, warning them of the racism they might face growing up in a rural area.
A few remarks later, the projection screen dropped and attendees soon found themselves enjoying the first installment of “Those Who Came Before”. The short documentary emphasized the uniqueness of black creatives from the mountain state as well as their achievements, past and present.
The documentary featured poet, activist and publisher Crystal Good, who recently launched a Black newspaper in West Virginia, titled ‘Black By God”. Good gleamed while describing her admiration for Ada “Bricktop” Smith, a jazz legend from Alderson, West Virginia. Good said Bricktop is an example of the heights Appalachians can reach just by being their authentic selves and through accepting the sense of mystery that seems to follow us.
“If I wasn’t from West Virginia, I would wonder what it’s like to be a black creative from West Virginia,” Good said, “Like what’s it like there?”
The first installment of ‘Those Who Came Before’ also featured Jazz Great Bob Thompson, who isn’t from West Virginia but attended West Virginia State University in the 1960s. Thompson reminisced on the multitude of jazz clubs that once populated downtown Charleston, including the infamous Shalamar Club which was started by Jazz songstress Ann Baker and her husband Delaney “Wag” Wagner, a Charleston native. Thompson said the club drew in an array of legendary jazz acts in addition to Charleston’s elite.
“There used to be a lot of traffic,” Thompson said, “We got a chance to jam and listen and play. What I learned from the scene was not the theory of music but the way music should feel.”
Lady D. explained that this showcase was only the beginning for ‘Those That Came Before’. She hopes to raise the necessary funds to produce additional installments soon.
For more information on how you can support the unearthing of more rich, Black Appalachian History, visit Lady D’s website!