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History written in stone

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Anthony Kinzer and Henry Battle were walking through the Elizabeth Harden-Gilmore home a few years ago, they expected they might encounter some history.

Still, the funeral ledgers they stumbled upon were a surprise. So was the headstone of a World War I veteran.

"We knew that was a fantastic find because we hadn't any idea that those records existed until we discovered them," Kinzer, director of the West Virginia Center for African American Art and Culture, said of the ledgers.

Kinzer and Battle, president of the Kanawha Valley Historical and Preservation Society, knew they had to do something about the papers, which were found in 2008.

"Because the house [had] asbestos inside of it, the records ... were contaminated," Kinzer said. "We couldn't take the records out of the home in that shape."

The home, which served as the Harden & Harden Funeral Home, was owned by Elizabeth Harden-Gilmore, a prominent black businesswoman, who played an influential role in the local civil-rights movement, according to Anthony Kinzer.

A second walk-through revealed to Battle and Kinzer a crated, military-issue headstone in mostly pristine condition. It was for a man named Charles Barnett.

"What in the world is this doing down here?" Kinzer said, recalling his reaction upon finding the stone.

The headstone and records sat in the home until 2011 when Battle successfully secured grant funding for their removal and decontamination, Kinzer said.

The ledgers and burial records are now in the ownership of Simpson United Methodist Church, he said. They have been categorized, Battle said, and it is their hope they will be donated to the West Virginia Archives and History library.

Upon reviewing the records, Battle and Kinzer figured out that Barnett was a veteran whose body was prepared by the funeral home, Battle said.

"It turns out they shipped his body ... down to Fincastle [Va.], where they actually had the service," Battle said.

Battle said Barnett was a laborer living in the Charleston area. After his death in 1952, his body was sent to his family in Virginia, while his headstone remained in the city. It's not clear if it was left behind or didn't arrive in time to be taken alongside Barnett's remains, Kinzer said.

The ledgers Kinzer and Battle discovered gave them clues to finding Barnett's family. The two were able to get in touch with relatives, who welcomed the addition of the headstone at Barnett's gravesite, Kinzer said.

Kinzer, Battle and Battle's wife delivered and installed the headstone to Fincastle last June, three days before Barnett's birthday.

"I felt a great sense of gratification [in] finishing the process for Ms. Gilmore," Kinzer said.

These days, the large, white classical revival Harden-Gilmore Home sits quietly on Leon Sullivan Way in the historic district known as "The Block." Simpson Memorial United Methodist owns and maintains the building, but it isn't currently in use.

Kinzer and Battle spoke solemnly of the home's idleness.

Earlier efforts to restore and preserve the house had failed, Battle said. But the two view the preservation of the funeral records and installation of Barnett's headstone as a success.

"We were really pleased to be able to preserve as much history as we have," Battle said.

The Harden-Gilmore home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but Kinzer and Battle would like to see more done with the property.

Kinzer and Battle preceded their exploration of the property with the goal of using it as a museum of local civil-rights and black history, according to Battle. He said adaptive reuse is "the real salvation of a historic building."

"They have to earn their keep, so to speak," Battle said.

The two spoke at length of the importance of preserving the city's history, especially its black heritage.

"The Harden-Gilmore home was a prime example of a pioneering civil-rights woman that fostered that belief," Kinzer said, of connecting different cultures through history. "Her efforts were tremendous, and ... for a black woman to accomplish what she did was extraordinary."

"Black history ... has been, in the past, rather overlooked," Battle said. "These records are important to the community and the history of all of us."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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