Some legacies are consequential, others mindfully and intentionally forged over time. In Charleston, WV you’ll find both.
For decades Charleston’s African American history and salt mine production have been intricately linked, as it was in nearby Malden, WV—about 10 minutes west of downtown—that production on the backs of slaves helped transform the town into “The Salt Capital of the United Sates.”
The manufacturing, sale and distribution of salt here, at that time initially for preserving meats, was not only prolific but of such a high quality that it was reportedly honored as the world's best salt at the World's Fair in London in 1851.
Due to the sheer number of African Americans needed to work the mines and fields to meet national demand, those that already lived or flocked here to do so also established their own thriving communities.
This past and present legacy is what you will find today in “The Block.”
“The Block” Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as Charleston’s first local historic district, is a preeminent example of perseverance, strength, wisdom, and community.
Originally spanning 25 acres, The Block encompassed grocery stores, churches, community centers, medical offices and related facilities, clothing shops – everything you find in a community today. (An interesting fact to note, is that despite the segregationist laws in place The Block eventually became the largest concentration of interracial marriages in the country).
The entities still remaining here commemorate the life and work of several prominent African Americans back in the day.
The Mattie V. Lee Home (now the Prestera Center - Mattie V. Lee Home for substance abuse rehab) honors its namesake, the first African American female physician in the state, her residence serving as a safe home for black girls arriving in the city in search of employment.
Simpson Memorial United Methodist Church was organized in 1865 prior to the end of the Civil War and is still an active church to this day. The Garnet School (now the Garnet Career Center) was a trailblazer in its day with an auditorium, science labs, cafeteria, mechanical drawing room, gymnasium, and other entities as one of three black high schools in Charleston during segregation.
A janitor turned nationally known entrepreneur and the first black state librarian is commemorated at The Sam Starks Home, and civil rights pioneer, funeral director, and the founder of the local chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality is honored at the namesake National Park Service Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House.
You can learn more about The Block today at the Appalachian Power Park Building where there is a detailed exhibit, as well as at the West Virginia Center for African-American Art & Culture. They organization also presents a special “The Block” Speaker Series and is engaged in several conservancy projects honoring the District’s history.
Perhaps the most well-known personalities that once lived in the Charleston area is Booker T. Washington. He spent his formative years from age 9 to 25 in Malden (known in the early 1800s as the Kanawha Salines and later recognized as the home of the largest concentration of slaves in the state), and his life and legacy is splendidly preserved at several entities as part of the Old Madden History Tour National Historic District.
It is here that you will find Larry Rowe, an attorney, member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, and a staunch historian. Rowe is passionate about the history of this District, and for years has played an integral role in its preservation, expansion, and regional and national attention and recognition.
The District, which extends from Malden into Charleston proper, encompasses Booker’s Family Home Site, The African Zion Baptist Church, the state’s oldest black Baptist church, recognized as the mother church for all of West Virginia’s black Baptists, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places; an historic reproduction of Booker’s one-room Cabin and School, the Booker T. Washington Park of West Virginia State University, the John P. Hale House, named after this historian, physician, and entrepreneur involved in salt mine production; the Kanawha Salines Presbyterian Church, believed to be the oldest church building in the Valley still in use today; the Dr. Richard and Ann Ruffner Putney House representing these leading salt makers and town planners; and the Norton House, the oldest frame house in Malden.
During the tour Malden regales visitors with stories about Booker and his family, The Ruffners, Lees, Coopers, Jarretts and others, many who came from neighboring Virginia that left indelible marks on Malden, Charleston, across the region and country, and even as far as Africa.
Rowe has also written an outstanding, two-book set about Booker and his family’s influence during this important era in history. Delineating the two is the Civil War.
The first book, Virginia Slavery and King Salt in Booker T. Washington’s
Boyhood Home, immerses the reader in the story of the influential Ruffner family, their booming salt industry, and the Virginia slavery they used for that industry. The second, Booker T. Washington's Boyhood American Dream: The Climb of the Black Middle Class Up from Slavery (available in 2020), is the post-Civil War accounting of the hardships and successes experienced by his family and his legacy for achievement of the American Dream.
Another entity that plays a pivotal role in the Malden story that is also part of the historic District is JQ Dickinson Salt-Works, an historic salt-works facility operated by seventh-generation salt makers.
The grounds, facility and tour are about much more than salt. They are infused with history, generational tenacity, community outreach, and love.
To really grasp the significance of the salt industry here it’s important to understand where it came from – the ancient Lapetus Ocean trapped below the Appalachian Mountains of the Kanawha Valley. It has always a naturally sourced product and the salt and wide array of salt products produced here are unlike any traditional, commercial salt entities you’ll find elsewhere.
Drilling for brine here (using a hollowed-out tree trunk for piping, no less) began in 1817, and the company grew and thrived for decades. Due to the combination of the end of the Civil War, the end of slavery, and staunch competition due to the onset of the more advanced, modern technology and processing in the 1900s (namely the use of electricity), the operation declined and eventually closed.
A handful of years ago two seventh-generation descendants of William Dickinson, siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, stepped in and decided to re-establish this once profitable entity - not through indentured labor, rather through sustainable community efforts and partnerships.
It’s perhaps the reinventing of a former oppressive societal landscape into a present-day, legacy of compassion and grace that is a model for local communities and beyond.
On the tour of this expansive property you’ll learn how this unsoiled, artisanal salt is harvested by hand, cured, packaged, and utilized in a wide array of food and other products – all without the use of machinery, preservatives or artificial additives - pure deliciousness and healthiness that you wouldn't expect from salt products. JQ Dickinson also hosts regular farm-to-table dinner events and features partnerships with numerous Charleston area companies.
A visit to JQ Dickinson Salt-Works is the highlight of any visit to Charleston and the Old Madden History Tour National Historic District, both legacies past and present in Charleston, WV.
There’s so much more to learn and share about Charleston. Continue your exploration in these exciting articles!