Reverend Charles McGhee established the West Virginia Normal and Industrial School for Colored Children in 1899. Serving as superintendent from 1900 to 1915, Reverend McGhee purchased 210 acres along Norway Avenue in 1903-1904. A three-story brick building was built, partially with labor from the School’s children. The state supplemented the facility’s operating funds from 1903 to 1910, before enacting legislation in 1911 establishing the West Virginia Colored Orphans’ Home and purchasing 190 acres and the School’s main building. The purpose of the facility was to provide a home, education, and vocational skills to African American children.
Group portrait of boys living at the Home, circa 1912. Courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Over the years, children under sixteen years old were placed in the home by social agencies, parents, and relatives that could no longer afford to care for them. Girls were taught sewing, cooking, cleaning, and laundry skills, typical jobs available to African American women in the first half of the twentieth century. Boys were taught construction and agricultural skills at the facility. Minimal educational opportunities were provided in the early years of the institution, as discrimination and segregation limited the institution's funding. Children were placed in foster homes and, if found amenable to both parties, could be adopted.
All children worked in the gardens and orchards to supplement their meals, with the boys conducting the more labor intensive farm efforts, such as dealing with livestock (hogs, dairy, and beef cattle), planting, and harvesting, while the girls focused on canning the orchard and garden products.
Exterior of the West Virginia Colored Orphans’ Home main building, circa 1914, prior to its destruction by fire in 1920.
On April 5, 1920, the main building was destroyed by a fire and the children were placed in various homes and institutions until the newly constructed three-story, Classical Revival-style brick building opened in December 1923. The State Industrial Home for Colored Girls, a state-operated facility, opened in 1926 on land owned by the Orphans' Home south of Norway Avenue. In May 1928, the Orphans' Home was comprised of the main building, a garage, the farm manager dwelling, a barn, a silo, a water tower, a granary, and chicken and hog houses.
In 1931, the Orphans' Home was renamed the West Virginia Colored Children's Home.
By 1951, classes were no longer taught at the facility. At this time African American and white educational facilities were separate, and the students were bused to segregated African American schools in Huntington, including Douglass High School. During this period the residents of the Children's Home attended church services, went to movie theaters, and took part in activities at schools and social centers.
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education legally ended segregated educational facilities throughout the nation. Desegregation of schools did not occur uniformly in all the states that practiced segregation. The West Virginia Colored Children's Home operated until 1956, when the institution was closed and the residents of the Children's Home were removed to the newly integrated Children's Home at Elkins. After its closure, the Huntington facility briefly served as a nursing home named the West Virginia Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored Men and Women. The institution and its grounds were transferred in 1961 to Marshall University and were re-purposed as housing for students. In 1997, the Home was listed in the National Register of Historic Placesfor its significance as the "physical representation of the institution's longstanding role in the provision of social services and education to the state's black community" and for the Home's "design as a Classical Revival-style institutional building constructed 1922-23."
This information has been adapted from the report titled Documentation of the West Virginia Colored Orphans' Home, Cabell County, West Virginia,prepared by Trent Spurlock and Rob Whetsell of Cultural ResourceAnalysts, Inc. for the Cabell County Board of Education in 2014.