It’s midmorning, and a group of volunteers pauses its vacuuming and dusting to listen to a song of praise from the pulpit of New Salem Baptist Church in Tams.
“I feel good, good, good down in my soul,” sings Queen Schoolfield, born and raised in Tams and a member of church ever since she was a little girl.
Back in those days, New Salem was full to brimming every Sunday. So was Tams.
Now, the congregation has dwindled to about a dozen regulars, and the church is the only building left standing in the abandoned coal camp.
But community members hope to breathe new life into this spot as a cultural heritage site.
Backing Schoolfield up in the choir are volunteers of all ages who are participating in the yearly Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.
On Monday, the Appalachian Coal Country Team worked alongside the Rural Appalachian Improvement League’s (RAIL) youth program to clean up the church, and an African American cemetery up the road.
As he videotaped the performance, Dewey Houck, president of RAIL, said, “Coalfield history is important to us, and this is definitely a part of it.”
When the hymns are over, it’s back to work. Wobbling on a ladder, a group of young people struggled to dismantle a ceiling light and rid it of dead insects.
“I’m so happy they’re cleaning those lights,” said Schoolfield. “Thank the Lord.”
There’s no question that New Salem is in need of some TLC, but it has obviously been well-loved by generations of congregants.
Built in 1922, it served the black community of Tams through the heyday of coal mining in the Winding Gulf Coalfield of Raleigh County.
Flanked by old portraits of its earliest pastors, its pulpit rises slightly above dozens of peach-colored pews.
The late morning winter sunshine streams through its antique rolled glass windows, shaped in gothic arches. It strikes on old hymnals, fans printed with images of a black Jesus and plaques honoring congregants who have passed away.
“In Loving Memory of Ivory Wiley Lavender,” reads one.
“She was like Queenie. If you got around her, you got a blessing,” said Tom Cox of Stotesbury, a town right up the road.
Cox is one of the leaders in the effort to restore historic structures along the Coal Heritage Trail and present them to visitors. As a boy, he sold loads of coal to area households, getting to know quite a few people in the Winding Gulf in the process.
“This is the life of a coal camp, the church,” he said. “When we were kids, life revolved around the church, and that lifestyle is drying up. If we don’t save these structures, there’s a way of life that’s leaving here.”
Like many of the coal towns around it, Tams has a rich history that lives on mostly in memory and a few photographs, since its abandonment in the mid-1980s.
Founded in 1909 by the coal baron W.P. Tams, owner of The Gulf Smokeless Coal Co., its segregated neighborhoods included Upper Tams for African Americans and Hunk Hill for the foreign-born.
Every house was painted white with green trim.
“People often think West Virginia is an ethnically homogenous place, and this is one of the last physical relics in the Winding Gulf that is proof that that story isn’t entirely true,” said Jack Seitz, volunteer field coordinator for the Appalachian Coal Country Team.
“I think it’s neat and important that it challenges that stereotype.”
New Salem was one of two black churches in town; the three white churches were Baptist, Methodist and Catholic.
After a 10-year community effort, New Salem will finally get a new roof this spring. There are plans to repaint as well.
But it still needs running water, and even paying utility bills is a struggle.
For years, Schoolfield has sold hot dogs and baked goods on the street in Beckley to keep the building heated.
RAIL has a vision to turn places like New Salem Baptist Church into a basis for cultural tourism in southern West Virginia.
They’d like to see the church on the National Register of Historic Places. They hope to restore the church at Wyco as a repository for coalfields history. They want to catalog and record coal camp culture by those who lived it.
They see the Winding Gulf and its relics as a “Gateway to the Southern West Virginia Coalfields” on the Coal Heritage Trail. The trail includes 187 miles of “scenic industrial heritage” through a five-county region that reflects a “legacy of working-class culture, industrial might, racial and ethnic diversity,” according to trail promoters.
“We’ve got to protect and restore our heritage to build a new economy,” said Seitz.
ATV trails from nearby Burning Rock Off Road Park wind right past New Salem. That’s one market to be tapped, said Houck.
Another are the people who left the coalfields when the industry went bust.
“You’d be surprised the number of people in the summer who return here. They show up in my driveway looking for help finding this or that,” said Cox.
“They are a part of our history and if we’re going to attract visitors to our community to see what it was like 50 years ago at the height of the coal boom, then we’ve got to preserve these churches,” said Houck.
But the group says it needs more support to make it work, whether in the form of cash donations or additional volunteer organizers.
They want to create the Coal Heritage Trail Coalition of Volunteers for Community Enrichment to see the organization’s goals through to completion.
But on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, they had hands enough at least to spiff up New Salem and also clean up the abandoned St. Johns Church cemetery for the African American coal camp at Stotesbury.
Those buried at St. Johns include black veterans from World War I. At least one served with the 803 Pioneer Infantry Battalion, as reflected on a gravestone.
Local residents want to preserve the foundation and corner stone of the church; put up a memorial to African American miners; and dedicate the cemetery to WWI African American veterans.
Daniels resident Glenda Apple showed up in Tams to volunteer after searching for a nearby project on the Day of Service’s official website.
“When I saw what the project was, I thought it was very important for the area. I really think it’s worthwhile,” she said.
Right away, Houck began recruiting her to become more deeply involved in the preservation work his organization wants to accomplish.
Meanwhile, Tyler Stafford, a student at Wyoming County East High School, did janitorial duty in the church sanctuary.
Stafford is a part of the West Virginia Coalfields Communities Youth Corps, RAIL’s youth program for high school students. They work 18 hours a week after school on various community development projects. They get a paycheck, experience and mentorship.
“I’ve met a lot of people and made new friends,” said Stafford. “It’s fun.”
The youth program’s director, Charlene Cook, said it teaches students a work ethic that will come in handy later.
“Your future wives will thank me,” she told two teenage boys running a sweeper in the church basement.
One room over, Schoolfield heats up water for cleaning. One day she hopes for a water hookup at the church, but for now she uses jugs that were purchased and hauled in.
“I feel like a million dollars,” she says.
For more information on the Rural Appalachian Improvement League’s efforts to restore relics at Tams, Stotesbury and other coalfield towns, visit www.railwv.org, send an e-mail to email@example.com, or call 304-294-6188.
For information on the Coal Heritage Trail, visit coalheritage.org.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org