On a recent bright clear afternoon, officials, students and locals gathered on the corner of South Fayette and G streets outside Stratton Elementary School to celebrate the completion of the African American Heritage Driving Tour.
"Today really is the first day that we celebrate two years of hard work," said Lizzie Watts, the superintendent of the New River Gorge National River.
Stratton, one of the first African American schools in the area, is just one of 17 stops along the trail which covers the four counties that border the New River Gorge National River.
"History only becomes history if you remember to tell it and we remember to share it," Watts continued.
Travelers and curious locals can download the phone app through the New River Gorge National River website, pick up a CD version at one of the visitor centers or print out the information online.
The app, when downloaded, gives users an overall map of the 17 sites, as well as directions between sites.
Once at the individual sites, app users will be able to listen to a five- to six-minute narration of interpretive stories related to each site.
According to Dave Bieri, also with the park service, project partners met and chose individual topics and then matched sites accordingly.
Of the sites, one is in Nicholas County, 10 are in Fayette County, three are in Raleigh County and three are in Summers County.
The lone Nicholas County stop is near where the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster took place.
In Fayette County, visitors will be able to visit the locations of Camp Washington Carver, the first African American 4H camp in the nation, Nuttallburg to learn about African American life in a coal camp, Gauley Bridge to learn the role of African Americans in the railroads, Mount Hope to learn about DuBois High School, the only known instance where white students were introduced to an African American school during integration, among others.
In Slab Fork, in Raleigh County, the birthplace of Bill Withers, trail visitors will be able to learn about African American music in West Virginia.
Summers County has stops in Hinton and Talcott, where visitors will learn about the legend of John Henry.
For those not keen on smartphones, the CD available will feature the same interpretive stories available in the app.
"The National Park Service tries to tell these different stories," Bieri said. "We're not just about preserving the scenery and natural resources, but we also preserve the culture and the history of these areas."
Bieri noted the park has worked in the past to tell the history of coal mining, the railroad and subsistence farming in the area, but he added that the park service and contributors believed that the story of the African American experience in the area had not yet been told.
"Many people got with the park service and said, 'Let's make sure that we are telling all of our history,'" Watts told the gathered crowd at Stratton. "Now you actually have an app where you can download all of this information in written form. All of these special stories that highlight our African American history."
Watts added that the effort to preserve the unique African American history of the area was done so for the younger and future generations.
"This generation here (children from the school), that's going to help me cut the ribbon in a minute, really can use technology that they love and that they understand to keep our history that is so very rich and so very special alive," she said.
The guest of honor, Zelma Wright, reinforced Watts' statement.
Wright, who graduated from Stratton High School in 1938, thanked those who worked on the trail for highlighting Stratton, which she said has produced many productive students before addressing the young children who attend the school today.
"I thank God for you young people, that you can see what has happened in my lifetime," Wright said.
The self-guided tour was created as a smartphone app through collaboration among the National Park Service, National Coal Heritage Area, West Virginia State University Extension Service, Eastern National Parks and Monuments Association, New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, Visit Southern West Virginia, the African American Heritage Family Tree Museum and DuBois of Main Museum.
The project was funded by grants from the National Coal Heritage Area, the West Virginia Humanities Council and National Park Service PMIS funds.
The app is available for download at www.nps.gov/neri.
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