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Exploring Our Past

These stories offer but a glimpse of the rich and colorful history of West Virginia State University. We invite you to read the epic love story that tells the tale of how the community of Institute, where WVSU is located, came to be named. We encourage you to explore the part that the University played in training the Tuskegee Airmen who fought so bravely for our freedoms in World War II. These are but a few of the chapters in the more than 110-year-old history of the University, and they surely won't be the last.
Beginning of West Virginia State University
Acts of the Legislature of West Virginia at its Twentieth Regular Session, commencing January 14, 1891.
AN ACT accepting the provisions of the act of congress approved August thirtieth, eighteen hundred and ninety, entitled "An act to apply a portion of the proceeds of the public lands to the more complete endowment and support of the colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts, established under the provisions of an act of congress approved July second, eight hundred and sixty-two," and providing for the apportionment of said endowment according to the provisions of said act.[Passed March 4, 1891.]
WHEREAS. The congress of the United States of America, by an act approved August thirtieth, eighteen hundred and ninety, entitled "An act to apply a portion of the proceeds of the public lands to the more complete endowment and support of the colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts, established under the provisions of an act of congress approved July second eighteen hundred and sixty-two," made an appropriation to each state and territory of fifteen thousand dollars for the year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and ninety; and an annual increase of said appropriation thereafter for ten years by the additional sum of one thousand dollars over the preceding year, after which time the annual amount so appropriated will be twenty-five thousand dollars for the more complete endowment and maintenance of the colleges established under the act of congress last aforesaid, "to be applied only to instruction in agriculture, the mechanic arts, the English language and the various branches of mathematical, physical, natural and economic science, with special reference to their application in the industries of life, and to the facilities for such instruction," and
WHEREAS, By a proviso in said act no state can obtain the benefits thereof, where facilities are not provided for the instruction of colored students in said branches of study, either in the same institution or in separate institutions, and the legislatures of the several states are required to make an equitable division of said annual appropriation where such separate institutions are provided, and report the same to the secretary of the Interior, and
WHEREAS, The constitution of the state of West Virginia forbids the education of white and colored youths in the same state schools, and this state having heretofore made no provision for the separate education of colored youth in agriculture and the mechanic arts; and the enumeration of the white and colored youths of this state, of school age, being about 250,000 white and 12,000 colored, it being the duty of this state to indicate a reasonable proportion of said appropriations, to be set apart annually for the instruction of the colored youth of the state, the sum of $3,000 is hereby indicated as an equitable portion of said appropriations, for five years from the date of the passage of this act, and after that time $5,000, as long as such appropriation continues; and
WHEREAS, By the terms of said act of the congress of the United States, approved August thirteenth [sic] eighteen hundred and ninety, it is necessary, in order to enable this state to share in the appropriations so made, and to be made, under the provisions of said last recited act, for the legislature to accept of the provisions of said act for and on the behalf of this state, and to make proper and suitable provisions for complying with the terms of the said act upon which this state will be entitled to her distributable share of said appropriations, and to designate the institutions of learning to become the beneficiaries of said appropriations, and the officer of this state to whom the money shall be paid by the United States, for the use of said beneficiaries;
therefore,Be it enacted by the Legislature of West Virginia:
I. The legislature of the state of West Virginia hereby accepts for said state, the terms and provisions of the said act of the congress of the United States approved August thirtieth eighteen hundred and ninety, for the objects and purposes mentioned and declared therein, and designates the "West Virginia University" established in pursuance of the act of the congress of the United States, passed July second, eighteen hundred and sixty- two, and a subsequent act passed by said congress, on April nineteenth, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, at Morgantown, in the county of Monongalia, in this state, as the beneficiary of said appropriation for the instruction of white students; and an institution to be located and provided for the purpose as hereinafter required and directed in the county of Kanawha, to be called "The West Virginia Colored Institute," for the beneficiary of said appropriation for the instruction of colored students; to be paid to each in the proportion mentioned in the preamble to this act. And the said institution, by the name of "The West Virginia Colored Institute," shall have and hold all the property, funds, rights, powers and privileges hereinafter mentioned.
2. For the government and control of said institute there shall be a board of regents, consisting of five competent, intelligent and discreet persons, not more than three of whom shall belong to the same political party, appointed from time to time as occasion may require by the governor, to be called the "Regents of the West Virginia Colored Institute," and as such board they may sue and be sued, plead and be impleaded, and have a common seal. They shall have care, custody and control of the property and funds of the institute, and may accept from any person or persons gifts of money or property for the use of said institute; and all such money and property when so received by them, shall be held in trust by them for the use and benefit of the institute, and applied thereto as the donors may have directed, and if no such direction have been given, as a majority of the regents may determine.
3. The board of regents shall from time to time establish such departments of education in literature, science, art and agriculture, not inconsistent with the terms of the several acts of congress hereinbefore referred to, as they may deem expedient, and as the funds under their control will warrant; and purchase such materials, implements and apparatus as may be requisite to the proper instruction of said colored students in all said branches of learning, as to carry out the intent and purposes of said acts of congress.
4. The said board shall establish and declare such rules, regulations and by laws, not inconsistent with the laws of the United States or of this state, as they may deem necessary for the proper organization, the tuition of the students and the good government of the institute, and the protection of the property belonging thereto. All reasonable expenses, incurred by said regents in the discharge of their duties hereby imposed upon them, shall be allowed by the governor and paid out of the treasury of the state, in like manner as other charges on the treasury are paid.
5. The treasurer of this state is hereby designated as the officer to receive, from the secretary of the treasury of the United States, the said several sums of money so to be paid to this state aforesaid, for the uses and purposes aforesaid. He shall keep an exact account of the moneys so received, and shall place to the credit of each of said beneficiaries thereof its due proportion of the same. The sums so placed to the credit of West Virginia university shall be paid out by him on the orders of the board of regents thereof, and the sum so placed to the credit of the West Virginia colored institute, shall be paid out by him on the orders of the board of regents of said institute. And said treasurer shall include in his biennial report to the governor a statement of his receipts and disbursements under the provisions of this act.
6. It shall be the duty of the board of the school fund to proceed with all reasonable dispatch to procure the necessary quantity of farming land, not exceeding fifty acres in all, in some suitable and proper locality in the county of Kanawha, with a title thereto clear and unquestionable, and to erect the necessary buildings and make the necessary improvements thereon, for the purposes of this act, and to comply in good faith with the terms and conditions, and to carry into effect the objects and purposes, of the act of Congress in making said appropriations. . .
7. And in order to enable said board to perform the duties required of them by this act, the sum of ten thousand dollars is hereby appropriated and placed at their disposal, payable out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated; Provided, That said board may in their discretion borrow the said sum of ten thousand dollars from the "school fund," mentioned in section four of article XII of the constitution of this state, at six per cent. interest per annum, and execute the bonds of the state therefor, payable with interest as aforesaid, not more than ten years from the date thereof.
(Approved March 17, 1891.)
[NOTE BY THE CLERK OF THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES.]The foregoing act takes effect from its passage, two- thirds of the members elected to each House, by a vote taken by yeas and nays, having so directed.
Among the Airmen … A Rose
In 1941 the original 11 graduates from West Virginia State College’s  pilot training program traveled to Tuskegee Alabama  to try out for the U.S. Air Force training program for black combat pilots.  The group consisted of 10 men and one woman – Rose Agnes Rolls.  She, too, was a licensed pilot from West Virginia State’s program.
Rose got her first introduction to airplanes when she was a girl.  Pilots would come to her home town of Fairmont, WV and charge a dollar for a ride in their planes.  At age six she rode in a biplane with the father.  That exhilarating experience was never forgotten.
At 16 Rose enrolled at West Virginia State College.  It was while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration that Rose “pushed” her way into the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP).  (West Virginia State was the first of six historically black colleges granted permission by the government to establish such a program. ) When she first asked the director, James C. Evans, to join the program he replied, “I don’t think so.  They are training men to go into the military. “
She persisted until Evans relented.  He wrote a series of letters to government officials asking if one female could join the program.  Finally word came back that she could join if she could pass the same mental and physical exams as the men.  She did.  Along side the men in the program Rose had to learn how to put the plane in a spin and pull it back out again, to land with the engine off, and to fly upside down.
To get her license Rose had to complete a solo cross-country flight using only a compass and sight as her guides.  Despite strong winds she flew from Institute to Parkersburg, WV making a few stops along the way.  Upon her graduation Rose received her pilot’s license making her the first African American woman licensed under the CPTP. 
She stayed on at West Virginia State working with the CPTP.  When the ten men went to Tuskegee she went too.  Given that the Air Force was barely prepared to accept black men, it wasn’t surprising that they refused Rose’s bid.  It was a disappointment to the 21 year old.  She returned to West Virginia State where she married a junior tennis champion from New Jersey, Ted Cousins.  She eventually returned to Fairmont and settled into a career as manager of medical records for the Fairmont Clinic.
According to her daughter, Rose Cousins was inducted as an honorary member of the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1980s because of her flight experience, her training with the men who would become Airmen, and her tenacity in breaking down racial and gender barriers.
Rose Rolls Cousins passed away in 2006.    

Institute: It Springs from Epic Love Story* 
By James A. Haught
Volume 32, Number 2 (January 1971), pp. 101-107
Did you ever wonder why the largest Negro town in West Virginia happens to be located on Kanawha River nine miles west of Charleston? The reason is one of the most remarkable love stories in the history of the state.
A rich plantation owner chose one of his slaves for his lifelong mate, had thirteen children by her, and finally was killed by angry white neighbors - but not before he took elaborate legal steps to guarantee that his black woman and brown children would inherit all his money and land. They did, and the former slave plantation eventually turned into the academic community of Institute.

Strangely, the story isn't recorded in any West Virginia history book, even though it was a minor sensation at the end of the Civil War. Skimpy bits of the tale can be found in century-old handwritten records filed away in the chambers of the Kanawha County clerk and circuit clerk.

The central figure was Samuel I. Cabell, a wealthy pioneer with a strong will and a strong temper. One record in the courthouse says he was born in Georgia; some descendants say family stories indicate he was born in England. Wherever he came from, there's little doubt he was part of the powerful Cabell family of Virginia that produced generals, Congressmen, a governor and countless judges and bankers. Cabell County is named for the Virginia governor of that name.

One hearsay family account says Samuel I. Cabell acquired many slaves in tideland Virginia, crossed over the mountains to the Kanawha Valley, and worked his slaves for a while in the pioneer salt operations here. One of his slaves was Mary Barnes, apparently a young black woman, of some physical charm. In the manner of many slaveholders, Cabell took her for his own and began fathering mulatto children.

But unlike other slaveowners, he didn't merely use her as one slave bedmate among many, and then ignore both her and the children that resulted. Instead, he evidently became devoted to her, remained loyal to her all his life, accepted her children proudly, and went to great lengths to guarantee that they had full legal rights as his sons and daughters.

He wrote four different wills to protect his dark-skinned family, and also filed papers setting each member free from slavery. All five documents remain today in aged yellow books at the courthouse, written in the ornate script of a court scrivener.

The earliest will is dated November 24,1851. It says Cabell had no real estate at that time, so he apparently was living somewhere in Kanawha County and using his slaves in industrial work. The will provided that all his slaves were to be hired out for work for six years after his death, then set free. All, that is, except one select group -

. . . My woman, Mary Barnes, together with all her children. . . I do hereby give their freedom to take effect immediately at my death, and they aren't to be considered as included among the slaves before-mentioned. . . .He ordered all his personal wealth, and all the money earned by hiring out his other slaves, to be divided among Mary and her children.

The next record in the courthouse is a property deed dated April 8, 1853, showing that Cabell paid $10,500 for 967 acres of rich Kanawha River bottomland encompassing everything between what is now West Dunbar and Sattes. (It was part of a tract once granted to George Washington by the king of England, then regranted to Washington by the governor of Virginia after the Revolution, then left to Martha Washington after George's death, and finally divided among various inheritors.)

Cabell moved his Negro mate and children and his slaves to his new land and began a plantation.
The next record is the patriarch's [sic] second will, dated April 6, 1858. It seems to imply he was worried he might be killed, and that Mary and the children might be sold into slavery if he were. The will begins:
In the event of sudden demise, this instrument of writing is intended to show or make known that Mary Barnes and all her children - namely, Elizabeth, Sam, Lucy, Mary Jane, Sidney Ann, Soula, Eunice, Alice, Marina (or Bobby), Braxton, and an infant not named - are and always have been free, as I have every right to believe they are my children.

I want and it is my will that they shall be educated out of. . . all the moneys, bonds, debts due me, land, stocks, farming utensils and household to be equally divided between them. . . .
Five months later, in a county deed book (slaves were property, remember) it is recorded that Cabell officially set free Mary and the eleven children. The infant had been named Betty by then. (Two more sons, William Clifford and James B., eventually were born.)

Next, still another will was written May 9, 1859. In it Cabell repeated his earlier wishes and spelled out individual cash awards ranging from $2,000 to $3,500 which he wanted bestowed on each child. Some of the daughters had married by this time.

Finally, on September 12, 1863 - during the Civil War - the plantation owner wrote an angry codicil which said: I hereby revoke this testament and will as to the slave portion. Those that have absconded and those taken away by the Federal Army shall not receive anything and they shall never be released from bondage during their lives. All property and moneys and debts due me shall be given to Mary Barnes and children equally after paying the board and schooling of the six youngest until they arrive of age.

The old man's temper, or his unusual marital status, or something, apparently drew him into conflict with white residents of the valley. In the aged records of Kanawha County Circuit Court, it's written that Cabell was indicted April 5, 1864, on a charge of "intimidating a public officer." But he was released upon pledging to be peaceable thereafter.

The next county record is a single line in a death book:
(Name) Samuel I. Cabell, (date of death) July 18, 1865, (location) Kanawha River, (cause) murdered, (age) about 60, (parents) -. (place of birth Georgia, (consort) - (occupation) farmer. . . .

A weekly Charleston newspaper of that day, the West Virginia Journal, was a fiery abolitionist sheet that regularly devoted its front page to poetry, sermons and demands for the hanging of all "rebel conspirators" such as "the arch traitor, Robert E. Lee." On page 3 of its July 26, 1865 issue (as recorded on microfilm in the State Department of Archives and History), it reported: 
The community here was thrown into considerable excitement on last Thursday evening, by the report of the death of Samuel I. Cabell, a bitter and open rebel who lived some nine miles below Charleston.
Seven have been arrested. Their names are Allen Spradling, Andrew Jackson Spradling, Mark L. Spradling, Stark B. Whittington, Lawrence Whittington, William Whittington and Christopher Williams.

The rumors of the causes leading to this crime are so contradictory that it is impossible to give any reliable statement of the facts; but if, as the friends of the deceased maintain, the act was a premeditated murder, the guilty party should be punished to the full extent of the law. We have already held up the law as the true guide, and nothing can justify its violation.

On the other hand, it is held by friends of the prisoners that they had been subjects of repeated insults on account of their loyalty to the Union, and that they went to his house for the purpose of telling him they would put up with them no longer, when, getting excited, Cabell jumped over the fence flourishing his knife, and he was shot in self-defense.

We can express no opinion, however, until the evidence is revealed.

Unfortunately, the evidence never is revealed - not in any remaining public record. In its next issue, the West Virginia Journal gives no facts, only polemics: It was established, we believe, that it wasn't a premeditated murder. The charge that the "Union League" is responsible for Cabell's death contains about as much truth as that the Union men of this country are "blood-thirsty", etc. The society spoken of is distinctly a UNION society. Its purposes are LAWFUL and its members LAW-ABIDING.

Later editions merely report that all seven defendants were acquitted, by juries that deliberated only a few minutes in each case. Official records in the circuit clerk's office report simply that the accused men were found innocent.

Folklore around Institute says Cabell was killed because of white resentment toward his integrated family life. But there's no record to confirm it.

It's possible that the white community may not even have been aware of Cabell's personal life - he may have appeared to be only a bachelor farmer living with his slave workers - because the wills which claim Mary and the children weren't brought to the courthouse and filed until after his death.

In December, 1865, Kanawha County commissioners ruled that the wills were valid. (Folklore says white relatives of Cabell tried to break the wills, but no court record shows it. There's no mention of it in circuit court or State Supreme Court records, and the county commissioner records for that period are missing.)

At this point, another rich, white Cabell enters the records. Charleston banker-farmer-salt manufacturer Napoleon Bonaparte Cabell, founder of an influential Kanawha Valley family, was named legal guardian for the youngest six of Samuel I. Cabell's mulatto children. Descendants say Napoleon was either Samuel's brother or his cousin - exact family records have been lost. Neither man is listed in the famous family's genealogy, a thick volume titled The Cabells and their Kin.

(Napoleon Cabell apparently was as fiery as Samuel. Napoleon died in 1889, and his will in the county records is a ferocious one. He disinherited two daughters who married against his wishes, calling one of the sons-in-law "no better than a thief. . .He swindled me out of about $2000." As for his wife. Napoleon recorded that "she never brought a farthing along" when he married her.)

Other county records tell the rest of the story.

In 1869, Mary Barnes petitioned the county commissioners to change her and her children's name to Cabell. In 1870, the commissioners divided the Cabell land among the mother and children, giving each a strip from the river to the hill. In 1871, executors reported that the Cabell estate was worth $42,128 - a considerable fortune a century ago, equivalent to at least a half-million dollars today.

Before he was killed, Samuel Cabell had striven to give his children the best possible education. There were no schools for Negroes in West Virginia, so he sent them to a private academy in Ohio. The practice continued after his death, and the youngsters grew to be an 1870s rarity; educated, professional-class Negroes. Some were doctors, some became teachers.

Some of the children settled in other states. Some returned to the family homestead in Kanawha County. Those who remained here became leaders among the growing number of residents as the plantation gradually evolved into a town.

The community was called, at different times, "Cabell Farm" and "Piney Grove." Is was one of the few places where freed slaves could live in peace. Even though West Virginia was a Union state, many white residents of the valley despised Negroes. The 1870s newspapers tell of harassment such as beatings by mobs and petitions seeking to ban Negroes from the county.

In 1890, Congress passed a law saying certain benefits would be denied to states that didn't educate Negroes - so, in 1891, the West Virginia Legislature passed an act creating the "West Virginia Colored Institute." A site was sought, but several communities, including St. Albans, angrily rejected offers to become the home of the black institution.

Finally, according to John C. Harlan's History of West Virginia State College, Governor Aretas B. Fleming and his staff boarded a boat and chugged down Kanawha River looking for a site. At the Negro colony nine miles downriver, they were met by black residents who welcomed the idea.

Samuel Cabell's daughter Marina sold the state a 30-acre tract for $2,250, and other lots gradually were purchased until an 80-acre campus was acquired. (Marina became postmaster of the town, and was said to be the first Negro woman in the United States to hold such a position.)

The town was named Institute, and kept the name even though the "Colored Institute" later was given other titles and finally evolved into West Virginia State College.

Mary Barnes Cabell died in 1900, an 85-year-old great-grandmother revered by her clan. She was buried in a little family cemetery alongside her slain mate. His tombstone, already weathered by then, indicates he was 63 years old when he was killed, and it spells his name "Cabble," one of the pre-Civil War variants of the name. Two of their daughters are buried in the same cemetery.

Many of the descendants have dispersed, but two granddaughters - Miss Ruth Holt Cabell and Mrs. Gwen Carter - still live in Institute, as do a number of great-grandchildren.

Today's Institute is a jam-packed academic and industrial center. In addition to the college, it has the Carbide chemical plant, the dormant Goodrich-Gulf plant, the state vocational rehabilitation center, the state police training academy, and a couple of hundred homes that have become racially integrated with scattered white occupants.

Hardly noticed in the bustle is the final refuge of the two people who started it all. The little Cabell Cemetery has been surrounded by the buildings and driveways of the vocational rehabilitation center. A lone tree bends over the graves of the murdered plantation owner and his beloved former slave woman. 

*A paper read at the annual meeting of the West Virginia State Historical Society, Charleston, October 3, 1970.

West Virginia State University’s Aviation Program and Its Contribution to the Tuskegee Airmen
By: Charles T. Ledbetter, Ph.D.
WVSU Professor of Education, Retired
(Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired)
In the late 1930s the Army Air Training Command was producing only a few hundred pilots per year...all white. Despite a crusade from all the major civil rights organizations to open up pilot training to African Americans, the attitude of the military and its policies of discrimination reflected the racist views of the dominant society in America. By nature, African Americans were considered within the dominant culture to be subservient and mentally inferior to Whites. This belief was expanded by the military into a view of African Americans as being incapable of learning to fly military aircraft. Further, the Army Air Corps considered African Americans as lacking in the courage and resourcefulness required of pilots when faced with the dangers unique to war.
Arguably, the person who did the most to shape the image of the modern United States Air Force was Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, a racist but brilliant officer who became the only five-star General of the Air Force. As a major general and Chief of the Army Air Corps in 1938, it was his vision and political skills that convinced the U.S. Congress to pass Public Law 18 on April 3, 1939, that authorized the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish Civilian Pilot Training Programs. Subsequently, this program bore the brunt of the training burden throughout World War II. The program dramatically increased the small number of pilots available to the Army Air Corps in 1939 to the thousands who were trained and fought in World War II.
On June 27, 1939, the Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act which authorized the establishment of Civilian Pilot Training Programs at 166 colleges and aviation training centers around the nation. Aware of the significance of this legislation, African American leaders and organizations, leading African American newspapers, concerned Congressmen, liberal coalitions and others successfully applied pressure to the Congress to include six historically black colleges in the 166 aviation programs. One African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, went so far as to state that the powers in Washington had already decided that the historically black schools selected for an aviation program were Wilberforce University, Howard University, Tuskegee Institute, and Hampton Institute. No mention was made of West Virginia State College.
Yet, on September 10, 1939, West Virginia State College became the first of six historically black colleges to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program. Howard University, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Lincoln University of Missouri, and Delaware State were later awarded aviation programs. The response of the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper to the announcement of West Virginia State’s selection was a story that began with "What we have just witnessed is a miracle...supplemented by the far-sighted genius of men of action, backed by visions which have come true."
However, it was not a miracle that West Virginia State College was the first selected. It was a combination of several things to include a well prepared application, and the College’s location next to Charleston’s municipal airport, Wertz Field (current location of the chemical plant). More important to the College’s success were the genius, vision, political savvy, and determination of the College’s president, Dr. John W. Davis; professor James C. Evans, assistant to president and director of the College’s division of trades and technical education, and music professor Joseph Grider, a certified pilot and vice president of the African American National Airmen Association. The first pilot training class at West Virginia State College began on November 14, 1939.
Throughout 1939 and 1940, the Army Air Corps rejected any efforts to accept African American graduates of the pilot training programs into its officer flight program. By January 1941, West Virginia State College and Tuskegee Institute had graduated several classes from their aviation programs and were actively competing for authority to offer a commercial pilot’s course for the graduates of the aviation programs at the six historically black colleges. Despite the determined efforts of Dr. Davis and Professor Evans, Tuskegee Institute was selected to establish a commercial pilot’s program with the other schools being feeder schools for that program.
In the early months of 1941, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, northern congressmen, and a few officials in the War Department were also increasing the pressure on the Army Air Corps to open its officer flight program to African Americans. Realizing the possibility of this occurring, Dr. Davis and Professor Evans attempted to cover all the bases that would ensure West Virginia State College would be the institution selected to offer that training. However, again Tuskegee Institute won the right to cooperate with the Army Air Corps in establishing a program to train African Americans as officers and pilots for the Air Corps.

The NAACP, the National Airmen’s Association, Dr. Davis, and other African American leaders were unhappy with the decision to locate the Air Corps flying training facility in Alabama. They viewed Alabama as being, at the time, one of the places where the strongest and most dangerous forces of resistance to the civil rights of African Americans had been nurtured and were actively practiced. Many believed that Tuskegee Institute and the Air Corps were involved in an unholy alliance to keep Blacks segregated.
However, Dr. F. D. Patterson, President of Tuskegee Institute, personally appealed to the Presidents of the other five schools to support the program and to nominate graduates of their programs for what the Army Air Corps was calling the "Tuskegee Experience." Despite his deep disappointment in the College not being selected, Dr. Davis nominated West Virginia State College graduates George Spencer Roberts from Fairmont, West Virginia, and Mac Ross from Dayton, Ohio for the "Tuskegee Experience."
The construction of the Army Air Field at Tuskegee Institute began on June 23, 1941. The 99th Pursuit Squadron was assigned to conduct the training. The first cadet pilot training class consisted of 13 members that included Roberts and Ross from West Virginia State and Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., at that time, the only African American to graduate from West Point in the twentieth century.
Of the 13 cadets that began the training, only five successfully completed it. On March 7, 1942, West Virginia State College’s George Roberts and Mac Ross joined two other cadets in being commissioned Second Lieutenants, and all four joined Captain Davis in receiving their wings as the first African American aviators in the Army Air Corps. Lieutenant Roberts, West Virginia State College Class of ‘38, was appointed Commanding Officer of the 99th Pursuit Squadron; and Lieutenant Mac Ross, Class of ‘40 was appointed Commanding Officer of the 100th Pursuit Squadron. Despite West Virginia State’s excitement over the success of its graduates, Roberts and Ross, its aviation program began to run into problems that threatened its continuation.

Union Carbide bought land near the College to build a chemical plant, and Charleston decided to close its Municipal Airport, Wertz Field, and move it to an area near downtown Charleston. The College made numerous pleads to the West Virginia Board of Control to maintain Wertz field as a flying field. However, the Board of Control determined that the new plant would present obstruction to commercial airlines and closed the airport. The final blow to the program came in the summer of 1942 when the War Department canceled pilot training programs at all six historically black colleges, stating that the Army would assume the training of all African American pilots at the Tuskegee Air Field.
In a July 24, 1943, letter to President Davis, Mr. Evans states, "It is interesting to note from the press releases from Tuskegee Army Air Field, the increasing number of West Virginia State College graduates and students who are (joining the Tuskegee Airmen)." Several West Virginia State graduates became a part of the 99thFighter Squadron that fought gallantly in the North African Theater under the command of West Virginia State’s George Roberts. Later, the 99thjoined the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons that comprised the 332nd Fighter Group which included many West Virginia State College alumni. The 332nd fought heroically in the European Theater of operation initially under Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and then under the command of West Virginia State’s George Roberts.
"During the course of (World War II), the Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 pilots killed in the combat zone... They destroyed or damaged 409 German aircraft, over 950 units of ground transportation, and sank a destroyer with machine gun fire alone, which was a unique accomplishment. However, their most distinctive achievement was that not one friendly bomber was lost to enemy aircraft attacks during 200 escort missions. This success was unique because no other fighter unit with nearly as many missions could make the same claim."
After World War II ended, the Tuskegee Airmen led the Air Force in completing its integration process almost before the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps had begun. After the Army Air Corps became the Air Force in 1947, it quickly and uneventfully changed from a segregated to an integrated service. It appears that the success of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war resulted in more leaders in the United States Army Air Corps who were enthusiastic backers of integration than any other military service.
Consisting of many West Virginia State College graduates in command and support positions, the Tuskegee Airmen earned an outstanding record in and out of combat regardless of how it might be assessed. They performed brilliantly, despite being trained and having to operate under the most difficult conditions of segregation and discrimination, in the United States and overseas. In American military history, the extraordinary achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen in and out of combat are matched by very few military units...and indirectly, West Virginia State University contributed strongly to those achievements.
Historical Picture of WV
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