The mural in Tazewell County. From left to right the people depicted are: Panel 1 - Coach Lou Peery
The mural in Tazewell County. From left to right the people depicted are: Panel 1 - Coach Lou Peery Panel 2 - Chief Jimmy Higgenbotham Panel 3 - Jack Gravely Double Panel 4 - Minnie Holley Barnes (l) and Hattie Holley Heath (r) Panel 5 - Councilman Andrew Henry Double Panel 6 - Dr, Henry Branson and Dr, Zirl Palmer Double Panel 7 - George Murray Dickerson and Rev. George Mills Dickerson Panel 8 - Lethia Cousins Fleming Double Panel 9 - James Knox Smith and Rep. Ebenezer Howard Harper panel 10 - Sallie Witten Panel 11 - Tazewell County African American Coal Miner Panel 12 - Samuel Harris. The obelisk in front is the Tazewell County Veterans of War Memorial. Courtesy of Ellen Elmes.

Mabel Horton has lived in Tazewell County throughout her life and lived a life similar to many Appalachians.

She grew up in her grandfather’s house, and both her grandfather and father were coal miners. She hung out with other kids in the coal camp, went to church and the movie theaters.

But unlike the white Appalachians around her, she was bused to a Black school, where she would go on to be classmates with one of the people depicted in the county’s new “Standing Tall and Proud” mural, Jack Wayne Gravely.  

“Standing Tall and Proud,” featured on the side of the Tazewell County Courthouse, was completed recently and is set to be dedicated this weekend. It features portraits of 16 Tazewell County Black men and women, from those who were born into slavery in the mid-1850s to those living into the 21st century.

Horton remembers that Gravely was “passionate” about whatever he did despite his circumstances: He was one of 12 children and his father died young from a mining accident. He served in Vietnam, got his law degree from the University of Virginia, became the president of Virginia’s NAACP, and always stressed that young people needed to get involved in the community.

“When I went to see the mural after it was completed, I must confess that it really made me emotional,” said Horton, co-chair of the Courthouse Grounds Improvement Committee. “They fit Jack [in], somebody I grew up with, somebody I joked around with, graduated with, and there he stood representing a part of my life.” 

People depicted in the mural

  • Minne Holley Barnes, community and educational leader
  • George Mills Dickerson, poet and preacher
  • George Murray Dickerson, his son
  • Lethia Cousins Fleming, suffragist leader
  • Jack Gravely, radio broadcaster and former state NAACP leader, who was from Pocahontas
  • Ebeneezer Howard Harper, a Black state legislator from West Virginia who was from Tazewell
  • Samuel Harris, a teacher and minister
  • Hattie Holley Heath, community and educational leader
  • Andrew Henry, minister and Bluefield town council member
  • Jimmy Higginbotham, Tazewell Police Chief
  • James Knox Smith, the first Black lawyer in McDowell County, West Virginia, who was educated in Tazewell
  • Knox Smith, a Black legislator from West Virginia who was from Tazewell
  • Zirl Palmer, a pharmacist from Bluefield who established the first Black-owned Rexall drug store in the country, in Lexington, Kentucky
  • Lou Perry, Tazewell baseball coach
  • Sallie Witten, a midwife and nurse
  • A representative coal miner

In November 2020, Tazewell County held a vote on an advisory referendum on whether to move the statue of the Confederate soldier that stood outside the county courthouse to another area. By a 7-1 margin, voters said they wanted to leave it where it was. Even though the final decision was up to the board of supervisors said they would do what the people wanted.

“I was disappointed in that vote but respected that that was the will of the majority of our people,” said Charles Stacy, the Eastern District supervisor. “And that’s what we had promised we would do. And that’s what we did.”

Stacy believes the vote came at a time where there was an “outcry to preserve the historical aspects of those types of statues.” Additionally, he thinks residents felt a personal connection to the monument.  “Number one, because it’s always been there. And number two, it represents the heritage of people, also, who lived in this county that fought in the Civil War and died. And there were very specific named individuals and families that feel very strongly that that soldier recognizes the sacrifice of their family member, and as a result it would be disrespectful to move that statue.”

Disappointed by the vote, Ellen Elmes looked at the courthouse’s blank brick wall and was inspired. Elmes is a former Southwest Virginia Community College art teacher but continues to paint murals in her free time. Her specialty is historic murals, including a 2020 mural depicting Johnson City, Tennessee’s history relating to the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote.

“I started thinking after the vote, there was so much talk about ‘cancel culture’ and I sort of thought, why not enhance culture, inclusive culture? Why not have something to balance, history-wise, at least Tazewell County history focusing on African American history and their heritage,” Elmes said.

Elmes submitted a proposal to the board of supervisors to portray 10 or 12 African American citizens throughout the county’s history. “At that point, I wasn’t proposing any type of criteria,” she said. “I was merely saying, Here’s an idea, and if you approve of it would you organize the right people to take up the program.”

Dedication ceremony

Saturday, Oct. 29, 1 p.m. at the Tazewell County Courthouse

In April 2021, the board unanimously approved the proposal for a mural on or near courthouse grounds. Each supervisor appointed two people to represent them on the committee, and one supervisor sat on the committee.

The group started meeting in July 2021, dedicating themselves to researching, planning and facilitating what they would soon call the “Standing Tall and Proud” mural, taken from a line in a poem by George Murray Dickerson, who is now depicted in the mural. 

“We’re going to hear about Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois — we’re going to hear about them, they’re already in the history books,” said committee member Susie Green. “We have to let our young people know, here in your own community there are people who have done wonderful and great things. … And so it’s a part of history [that gets] inside you. Just the desire to know more about who you are, who your people are, what did they believe, were there any people that made contributions like that? So it’s all in the subject of standing tall and proud. That’s what we chose to name it. Those of us who read their narrative leave that mural feeling tall and proud, because we feel just a little closer to those who we have memorialized.”

The committee decided on criteria for who would be displayed on the mural: The person must have be born in Tazewell County. During their lifetime, they must have had a significant impact. They didn’t necessarily have to have remained in Tazewell County, and they did have to be deceased.

The book “’Cause I’m Colored: The Black Heritage of Tazewell County” by Nancy Peery, which describes the African American experience in the region, served as a guide for the committee when it decided whom to portray on the mural.

Additionally, African American committee members provided primary accounts: In some cases, they had lived, laughed and interacted with people being considered for the mural. Their neighbors and family members also acted as primary sources, telling stories about the mural subjects that the committee members didn’t know themselves. 

“Some of the people are considered primary accounts,” Green said. “We didn’t have to dig up  or research a whole lot . . .We still have people like my mom’s age, she’s going to be 99 in December. I remember the stories that she’s told. When she was telling the stories that she and her sisters told, they were telling it for us to remember it as history. They were telling it because it was always on their mind, it was a part of Sunday after-church conversation. We’ve come a long way, but we haven’t come so far that we only have secondary accounts of history. We still have primary accounts, and I think that’s a big plus. Because once they’re gone, it’s just pretty much what’s in the record of what somebody has been told.” 

The collection of primary accounts and additional research resulted in a long list of people who could have been put on the mural, but in the end the committee chose 16 as that was all the space on the wall allowed. 

Each portrait includes a plaque describing the person’s life, accomplishments and impact within Tazewell County.

“I had done another project of portraits a year ago of just the heads and shoulders of people who had been killed in El Paso in the Walmart shooting, and ended up giving those portraits to the families,” said Elmes. “The way I did those influenced what I had in mind to portray the people from this project. … My early thought in the beginning was to make each person stand out as much as possible.”

The left side of the mural begins with the person with the most recent death date, then goes back in time. All of the portraits are life-sized to show off the subject’s clothing, gestures and items they would hold, representing the core of what the person was being honored for.

Minnie Holley Barnes, who is portrayed with her sister Hattie Holley Heath for their community and educational contributions, was a blind and deaf teacher who also started Girl Scout troops for Black girls throughout West Virginia and Virginia. When trying to decide what clothing to depict Barnes in, Elmes tracked down a woman who had worked with Barnes as an assistant Girl Scout leader. The woman still had a uniform, which Elmes used as a guide when she painted Barnes.

The subjects are portrayed in full color, with a line of color surrounding and creating a panel around each subject. Most of the subjects have a panel to themselves, although if two people shared some kind of association — familial ties, for instance — they also share a panel.

Another view of the mural with the plaques in front. Courtesy of Ellen Elmes.

Elmes worked with a range of other artists: Brittany Davis, Valencia Johnson, Shelley Lallande, Sarah Romeo, Catherine Romeo, Kelvin Seabolt, Linda Weatherly Shroyer, Jacenta Trigg, Brandon Viney and Renee Wienecke. Elmes painted most of the faces; she deemed them the most important part and wanted consistency throughout the images. The other artists helped with the clothing and bodies. On the last day of painting, committee members and their children came to help paint the backgrounds and borders.  

“I have found that murals are so publicly engaging and anybody on the street can have access to this mural, to these people, to their histories, to their stories, and there’s no admission fee to get into a building,” Elmes said. “I’ve always believed that any mural or public work of art, that as the artist, I do the best I can to put out the story of my subject. But in response, I feel like each person who sees it takes what they see and incorporates it with their experience and their story. And that becomes a new thing with the people who view it. When I finish a mural it’s not my mural. This mural is Tazewell County’s mural.”

The failed relocation of the Confederate soldier monument might have initiated the mural project, but throughout the process people have found meaning outside of a Confederate statute.

Green, the committee member, did not grow up in Tazewell County but was born there and has lived there for the last 15 years. When Green was younger, she remembers one of the Holley sisters coming to her house to give her a book on their family’s history. Tending to her baby, Green didn’t have time to talk, but she would later bring her children to the sister’s house, where they would talk about family history and go to know each other. 

“It’s going to be really a wonderful experience for our family,” Green said of Saturday’s dedication. “Not everybody will be present, but those that will be, it’s just going to be very, very nice.” 

Members feel as though they have accomplished their original mission of bringing a balance to the courthouse. 

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s an opportunity to share our story,” Green said. “There are many things within the town that are memorialized. And this was one of the first African American things, parts of history that we chose to remember.”

Adiah Gholston

Adiah Gholston is a writer based in Blacksburg. She can be reached at adiahcghost@yahoo.com.