By Katie Teems, NHT AmeriCorps Member
Did you know that an important moment in the fight for civil rights transpired a mile down the road from downtown Thomas? Across from the Buxton & Landstreet Gallery on Douglas Road you'll find a simple plaque reading "Coketon Colored School." Many people from the area are unaware of the story of Carrie Williams, the African American teacher at the Coketon Colored School who won the first "separate but equal" case in 1892, even before the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that upheld legal segregation.
When the local school board told Williams to teach her students for only 5 months out of the year, as opposed to the 8 months on white school calendars, Williams continued teaching for the full 8 months and lived on her meager savings. Williams and her lawyer, J.R. Clifford, West Virginia's first African American lawyer, then took their case of discrimination to court where it "was the first civil rights case in the country's history to determine discrimination on the basis of color to be illegal," writes Roxy Todd of Traveling 219.
How did Carrie Williams become acquainted with West Virginia's first African American Lawyer J.R. Clifford? An article in Friends of Blackwater's publication West Virginia Central and Pittsburg Railroad states that Williams "taught the children of half-brother James Henson Clifford, who is buried at the cemetery across the river from Thomas."
Even though the school is now closed and Carrie Williams' students and their families relocated after the mine closing, this important achievement for racial equality in Thomas' backyard cannot be forgotten. Let's keep Carrie Williams' story in mind this February as we celebrate Black History Month.