By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
About 30 years ago, Wayne Baumgardner and I spent a night talking about the problems facing Bluefield. I was working as the communications coordinator of Bluefield Community Hospital and Wayne was working as a photo journalist/weekend sports anchor on WVVA-TV. We had attended a communicators meeting that evening at the bar in what is now the Quality Inn and Conference Center. Wayne and I didn’t talk at the meeting, but as we were leaving we started talking among ourselves and found that we shared a lot of ideas in common.
The discussion continued as we drifted over to the living room of the house I was living in at the time on Monterey Hill. Wayne had been a star wide receiver for Beaver and with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and he knew some of the West Virginia football kids I knew from when I drove a bus at West Virginia. But that wasn’t our only common ground. We were both committed to the dream of true racial equality, and unfortunately, both of us could see that there was inequity in representation in terms of the professions and in leadership roles based on the percentage of black residents in the city.
Regardless of race, any person has to work hard, stay clean, learn and be willing to go the extra mile to get ahead in the world. Wayne’s point to me was that when he was growing up, there was a vibrant black business community in Bluefield that included health care-related businesses, retail businesses, a car dealership, a college, service businesses and more. By the fall of 1983 when our conversation took place, most of those businesses had eroded away to just a very few. To Wayne, the erosion also took away hope for many young black people who might aspire to become business owners.
The fall of 1983 was just 10 years removed from a time when a top 10 hit by the Stylistics — “Rock & Roll Baby” — was getting plenty of airtime on the radio. Wayne thought that the city could build on some of the positive strengths in its history to build its future. There was more than musical harmony in the kind of songs that the Stylistics were singing. Their lyrics spoke of racial harmony ... of a place where people of all races and backgrounds can co-exist ... a place where equality is thought of as more than just a phrase in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”
I defy anyone to tell me that it can’t be done. This year marks the 25th year that Karl Miller and I have performed concerts together in the region and beyond. We are dramatically different people on many levels, but we are truly brothers in Christ and we truly appreciate the contributions that each of us make to the music we produce together. In 25 years, we argued over one note that I was singing in the hymn, “I’ll Fly Away” and that’s all. We’ve traveled all around the two Virginias together, through all kinds of weather conditions. Karl has played in places where the sun shined so hot on his keyboards that it burned his fingertips and I sang an entire show one afternoon with a throat so raw due to a bad cold that I could barely talk.
When I look at this city, I don’t see the historic downtown buildings and mansions of South Bluefield as being the only things of beauty here. The beauty I see is the diversity of the population. Last week at the Bluefield State College Foundation fundraiser at Fincastle on the Mountain, I looked out on a crowd of diverse people — black, white, foreign born, Jews, gentiles, men, women, Republicans, Democrats — all gathered together in joyful fellowship.
To me, our strength as a community is our diversity. We ought to be looking at ways that we can help young people develop their talents so they can chart a new direction for the city’s future that embraces the thing that really makes this place special — it’s people.
The former Norfolk & Western Railway — now Norfolk Southern — selected Bluefield to be the site of its western mechanical shops because of a geographical oddity. There is a spot near the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge in Bluefield that is the highest elevation on the NS mainline between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio River. The railroad could use gravity to make up coal trains bound for Hampton Roads.
Just like the so called “hump” in Bluefield, the city has another natural strength — its diversity. But just like a tomato plant seed, it needs to be germinated and gently nurtured before it can be planted in the soil to bear fruit. Our community needs all of us to work harder at germinating and nurturing its future in order to ensure a better tomorrow.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.