The West Virginia University community commemorated the Martin Luther King Jr. Day by honoring the man who, among his many achievements, fought to make the day a state holiday.
James Tolbert Sr., president of the West Virginia State NAACP for more than two decades, pushed the Jefferson County School Board to integrate its schools, worked to withhold federal funding from towns that flouted the Civil Rights Act, and orchestrated celebrations on the nation’s hallowed ground.
At WVU’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast, Tolbert was recognized with the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award for his life’s work furthering civil rights, humanitarianism and equality in West Virginia. Sherline K. Montoute, a WVU senior, is the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship, also presented at the breakfast.
Tolbert, who retired from the U.S. Veterans Administration in 1988, is a native of Charles Town, W.Va., and graduated from West Virginia State College (now University) with a bachelor’s degree in zoology after serving as a dental technician in the U.S. Air Force.
For more than 50 years, he has fought for the rights of African Americans, beginning with the struggle for integration in Jefferson County schools in 1968. He worked so that his alma mater and historically black college, West Virginia State University, received land-grant status and appropriate funding.
He also lobbied for the employment of African Americans in positions that would have been denied them before the Civil Rights Act. As state NAACP vice president from 1976 to 1986, he lobbied the governor and the legislature on equality and social justice issues and helped to increase the number of minority-owned businesses in the state.
In the late 2000s when it came time to remember the 100th anniversary of the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP, he requested that Sen. Robert C. Byrd allocate funding. He did the same in 2009, the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on the arsenals at Harpers Ferry.
He is a member of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society, the West Virginia Martin Luther King Holiday Commission, the Community Relations Council of the Harpers Ferry Job Corps, the Jefferson County Economic Development Commission and the Marshall-Holly-Mason American Legion Post #102, among others.
For his lifelong work, Tolbert has been recognized with several prestigious awards. The West Virginia State NAACP presented him with its highest award in 1976, the T.G. Nutter Award. He later received the West Virginia Civil Rights Day Award and the Living the Dream Award, both awards for furthering civil rights in West Virginia.
Montoute, who expects to graduate this December with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, is a McNair Scholar, has worked as an undergraduate student researcher, has held a variety of leadership roles at a private school, and participated in mission trips.
CONTACT: Marjorie Fuller, WVU Center for Black Culture and Research
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