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SOJ professor, students to tell the stories of African American war vets through interactive exhibit

The small town of Kimball in McDowell County may seem an unlikely place to house the nation’s only war memorial honoring World War I African American soldiers, but as one might imagine, there is a story to tell.

Associate Professor Joel Beeson

This summer, West Virginia University P.I. Reed School of Journalism Associate Professor Joel Beeson and three students are working to document that story and create a public exhibit at the Kimball War Memorial Building.

Using photographs, multimedia interviews, timelines and war memorabilia, the exhibit will help narrate the story of African Americans who migrated to McDowell County from the rural South in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and who served in the U.S. military during wartime. The interactive display will be permanently housed in the Kimball building and also include an online component.

“Curating an interactive narrative in physical space provides a pivotal learning environment for students working in multimedia,” said Beeson. “Understanding how to use all the tools of experiential media effectively bridges digital and physical space to build a true new media experience.”

As director of the West Virginia Veterans History Project – an ongoing effort since 2003 – Beeson has acquired and edited more than 500 photographs, including historical World War I images and a photographic social survey of McDowell County coal miners by the famous Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee.

He became acquainted with the McDowell County memorial and its board members in 2004 while working on his documentary, “Fighting on Two Fronts: The Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans.”

In the fall of 2009, Beeson shared the idea of creating a photo exhibit for the memorial with students in his visual storytelling class. What started out as a class assignment evolved into a community project, now known as the “Kimball War Memorial Project.”

News-editorial senior Alissa Murphy is helping Assistant Professor Dana Coester who is leading efforts to produce an online component for the exhibit. Murphy said the entire team has a very important task on its shoulders.

“This is a huge part of West Virginia history – of U.S. history,” said Murphy. “We want to create an experience. We want people to hear the voices of African American veterans while they are looking at these photographs.”

Other team members include news-editorial junior Evan Moore, who is the visual editor for the project,and May 2010 news-editorial graduate and project coordinator Brianna Swisher, who is doing a year-long Americorps internship with Coal Heritage Trail, one of the project’s collaborating partners.

Work on this exhibit is partially funded through a 2010 WVU Public Service Grant. The display is slated to open on Veterans Day, Nov. 11 and the interactive website will be launched this fall.

Read the official release on WVU Today.