POMEROY, Ohio — On Monday, Sept. 28, a re-dedication ceremony will be held for a Meigs County, Ohio native whose literary genius and commitment to education has been globally recognized.
Few can claim the span of accomplishments made by James Edwin Campbell within his brief 28-year life. Born Sept. 28, 1867, in the Kerr’s Run area of Pomeroy, Ohio, Campbell passed away Jan. 26, 1896, during a holiday visit to Pomeroy.
In the intervening years, Campbell attended elementary school at the Kerr’s Run Colored School and graduated from the Pomeroy Academy. After graduation he was active in local and state politics. His journalism career included his work as an editor for two West Virginia newspapers, and writing regularly for Chicago newspapers. Campbell was on the literary staff of the Chicago-Times Herald, published essays and poetry, and is credited with being the first to publish poetry in what has been referred to by linguists as African-American Vernacular English.
In directing the focus to his contributions in education, Campbell taught at several Meigs County Schools, and was chosen by the Point Pleasant (West Virginia) Board of Education as the principal of the Point Pleasant Colored School in 1891. Campbell guided the school through its relocation to a larger former white school. After the move, the school was renamed Langston Academy in honor of African-American educator John Mercer Langston. Campbell served as principal of Langston Academy until he resigned in 1892, to become the first president of the newly established West Virginia Colored Institute.
Civil War era legislation called the Morill Act provided for establishment of schools supported by the sale of public lands in order to teach agriculture, engineering, and military tactics. An update in 1890 required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color.
States that did not comply with the provision to educate all students would not receive federal funding from the program. Since the West Virginia constitution did not permit the education of “white and colored youths” in the same state schools, the state Legislature passed an act that allowed funds to be set aside specifically for the education of “colored youths” in separate facilities.
The West Virginia Legislature founded the university as the West Virginia Colored Institute on March 17, 1891. It was one of 17 Black land grant colleges established under the Second Morrill Act of 1890.
The original curriculum of the Institute consisted of the equivalent of a high school education, and included agriculture, horticulture, mechanical arts, domestic science, vocational training, and teacher preparation. Campbell used his role to provide guidance to West Virginia’s African-American coal miners on ways to help their children acquire an education.
In 1929, the school became West Virginia State College. When the United States Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 outlawed school segregation, the college became integrated. In 2004, the West Virginia Legislature approved WVSC’s transition to University status.
Today, the school is known as West Virginia State University, a fully integrated and accredited college that had it’s beginnings under the leadership of Campbell.
In 1973, West Virginia State College honored Campbell by naming its vocational building Campbell Hall. The former home economics cottage was re-purposed into a conference center, and the facility was named the Campbell Conference Center.
The University’s iconic clock tower features plaques recognizing past presidents, including its first president James Edwin Campbell.
Campbell was also instrumental in establishing the West Virginia Teachers’ Association in 1891 with the goal of “encouraging interest in their work and cooperation throughout the state’s African-American teaching corps.”
He left the Institute in 1894 and moved back to Chicago. While it has been noted in several histories about his life that he confided in a friend after leaving the Institute, “Life is too uneventful in a little village. I want to get out into the great world.” Despite this, his last poem written on Dec. 7, 1895, was entitled “Homesick.” The poem detailed his longing for the “quiet of the home place.”
A historic marker was placed in his honor in 2007 in a mini-park near his boyhood home in Kerr’s Run. The marker was damaged beyond repair in 2013 but thanks to the efforts of the Meigs County Historical Society, a grant was secured to replace it.
The public is invited to the re-dedication ceremony, Monday, Sept. 28, at 5 p.m. at Water Works Park in Pomeroy, Ohio.
Sources for this article include West Virginia State University Photographic Services, Communications & Marketing, West Virginia University Library and Archives, the Poetry Foundation, and the Meigs County Historical Society/Shannon Scott.
Additional information about Campbell, including his contribution to African-American poetry, will be presented in upcoming stories.
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Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing.