Community, Latest News

Mural Honors Historic Figures

FSU professor, students dedicate art to black history

Fairmont’s Palatine Park has a new mural — under the bridge separating its north and south sides — which honors some of its historical luminaries.

“Our goal was to try and find people who maybe persisted beyond any kind of dark, or you might say some kind of struggle, in their life and saw some kind of illumination,” said Joel Dugan, Chair of the Department of Architecture Art & Design at Fairmont State University and artist.

Luminary is a folk art tradition that can be done without a lot of money, Dugan said. The only tool is a nail or needle. The canvas is tinfoil which is poked full of holes and then illuminated casting its image on the walls of a dark room.

In addition to Dugan, five students in a class dedicated to researching, proposing and painting the mural helped. Fourteen students participated in the class but only a few could help paint because of COVID-19.

The funding for the mural was paid for by Fairmont and the Marion County Commission, according to Fairmont Mayor Brad Merrifield. It cost about $8,000 and did not go to the students or Dugan who donated their time.

“I’m ecstatic over it,” Merrifield said. “It makes me feel good that we’re honoring a group of people that I don’t think anyone would say they don’t deserve it.”

Merrifield and Dugan both said more murals are in the works. There is space for two more to the right and left of the one completed on Thursday, Dugan said.

The project proposal included the reasons each figure was chosen. It honors four individuals and one group.

They are: 

 Johnnie Johnson

Johnson was a jazz, blues, and rock and roll musician, and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for helping to desegregate the Marines during WWII.

“He endured racial barbs to inspire change in the segregation policy of the United States Marines,” the proposal said.

Julia Pierpont

Julia Pierpont was the wife of Francis Pierpont and founder of what is now Memorial Day.

While staying in Virginia, Pierpont became concerned about the conditions of Union soldier’s graves. She organized a group to clean and decorate a local cemetery and as news spread groups around Virginia did the same.

It’s believed her decorating event is the reason National Decoration Day, which was soon renamed to Memorial Day, was started.

Colonel George “Spanky” Roberts

Colonel George “Spanky” Roberts was of the first Tuskegee Airmen.

Roberts went to elementary and high school in Fairmont. He attended West Virginia State College, now West Virginia University, at 15 and graduated at 18 with a degree in mechanic arts in 1938.

In 1941, he joined the military as the first Black aviation cadet and graduated first in his class.

In WWII, Roberts commanded a fighter squadron and flew in 78 combat missions over Europe.

Harriet “Aunt Hat” Wilson Whitely

Aunt Hat was sold with her mother and sister on the steps of the Marion County Courthouse in 1855.

When she died in 1941, the Fairmont Times ran her obituary for five days describing her background and contributions, Dugan said. Aunt Hat was one of the first Black women to enter the school system in Marion County; she could read, write and ended her life as a homeowner.

“Students were extremely inspired by her story and wanted to include her,” Dugan said.

Coal Miners 

“We believe it is necessary to pay tribute to the hardworking men, women, and industry that have been a cornerstone to the county, state, and the overall nation. Coal miners have been an integral part of this region, including the tragic mine disasters in Monongah (1907) and Farmington (1968) that led to more effective federal safety laws for mines, as well as an overall supportive community,” the proposal said.

Tweet  @WillDean_DP