By Bill Archer
PRINCETON — Rev. Donald Conner was aware that his grandfather’s brother had a passion for education, but he didn’t know how deep that passion went until recent years.
“My grandfather was Charles Prillerman,” Conner, pastor of Saints Memorial Church of God in Christ said. “He was big on education — the whole Prillerman family was. His brother Byrd Prillerman was one of the founders of West Virginia State. A Raleigh County high school was named for him.”
Even though several family members were dedicated to education, Conner said that much of the family history has been passed down from one generation to the next. He was unaware that Byrd Prillerman was his great uncle until he attended a family reunion a few years ago and learned it from one of his aunts who lived to be 100 years old.
“There were other members of the family who had an interesting past, but Byrd Prillerman was probably the most famous,” Conner, 68, said. Conner’s nephew is the famous comedian, Steve Harvey. “My aunt told me of one of my great, great aunts came here from Peru. She didn’t want to be a slave.”
According to Conner, his great grandfather — Byrd and Charles’ father — was from Ireland. “He was very fair complexioned,” Conner said. “My grandfather Charlie Prillerman and my great uncle Byrd were both very light. During those days, it was easier for black people to get jobs if they were fair complexioned.”
Conner learned about his heritage in the 1990s. He said his aunt told him the Prillerman family were from Virginia, but came to West Virginia after the end of the American Civil War. Conner’s mother was Hattie Lillian Prillerman Conner and his father was Frederick Edward Conner.
“They met in Patrick County, Va., and married there,” Conner said of his parents. “I’m the youngest of 12 in my family. Six of them were born in Virginia and six in West Virginia after they moved here in the 1920s. My father and some of his brothers came to McDowell County to work in the coal mines. I was in the Air Force when my parents moved to Princeton in 1958. After I got out, I moved here too.”
Conner learned about the Prillerman connection at a family reunion in Maryland. “If I would have known about Byrd Prillerman being my great uncle when I was young, I would have attended West Virginia State instead of going here to Bluefield State College,” he said. “They’re both good schools, but that school in Institute is tied to my heritage.”
Byrd Prillerman was born into slavery on Oct. 19, 1859, the youngest of 17 children. He earned a B.S. degree from Knoxville College in 1889, and two years later he worked with Rev. C.H. Payne, D.D., to establish the West Virginia Colored Institute. Prillerman served as an English teacher at the college from 1892-1909, when he was elected acting president and later, became president.
Prillerman helped the school achieve accreditation and was serving as president of West Virginia State in 1919 when the college granted its first degree according to information on the West Virginia Division of Culture and History web site. Prillerman left the college in 1919 and devoted himself to Sunday School work. He died in 1929. A high school in the Winding Gulf coal community of Amigo in Raleigh County was named in his honor.
“The high school burned in 1962,” Joseph F. Lewis said. Lewis was from McAlpin, but now lives in Richmond, Va. “Byrd Prillerman served students all the way from first grade through the twelfth,” Lewis said. “When I was there, we had about 200 students in the whole school. There were never more than 250. We had two teachers for grades one through eight and about seven or eight teachers for the high school.
“I graduated in 1952,” he said. “At that time, Beckley Stratton was the only other black high school in Raleigh County, but our other big rival was Conley High School in Mullens. The year after I graduated, Byrd Prillerman won the state championships in three sports — football, basketball and baseball. I’m not saying they weren’t good before I left, but there were no more than 100 boys in the entire school, and they did something that has probably never been done since, or if it has, it would have to be rare.”
Byrd Prillerman is buried at the Rakes Peters Cemetery on Academy Drive in Institute. Conner recently visited the gravesite of his famous great uncle. He said the next family reunion is in Washington, D.C., during Memorial Day weekend. “I have a lot more questions to ask my family at this reunion,” he said.
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com