Tolbert, 78, of Charles Town, was presented with West Virginia University’s Martin Luther King Achievement Award.
A story in last week’s WVU News newspaper, written by reporter Diane Mazzella, said the university commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day “by honoring the man who, among his many achievements, fought to make the day a state holiday.”
Tolbert, who grew up and was educated in Jefferson County’s segregated black schools, served as president of the West Virginia NAACP for 21 years, through 2007. The award states that he was also recognized for his life’s work “furthering civil rights, humanitarianism and equality in West Virginia.”
Tolbert, in an interview Wednesday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the church he said he “grew up in,” remembered the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws in his hometown. He went through all 12 grades at Eagle Avenue Elementary School/Page-Jackson High School. He graduated in 1950. The building later burned down, he said.
He said even though his school and two others in Jefferson County — Shepherdstown Elementary and Harpers Ferry Elementary — were for blacks only, “I felt we all got good educations. Our teachers and administrators were all very dedicated.”
He enlisted in the Air Force and served four years, mostly in Japan. Discharged in 1954, he enrolled in West Virginia State College, now university, a name change that came about through Tolbert’s efforts. He graduated in 1958 with a degree in zoology and began a 30-year career with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 was supposed to end school segregation across the country. It came to Jefferson County a lot slower.
His Air Force hitch was ending when the court’s decision came down.
“I was still in Japan and I was naive,” Tolbert said. “I thought it (desegregation) would begin right away. People don’t know that it took us until 1966 in Jefferson County. That’s when they finally closed the black schools.”
He remembered how the Charles Town Civic League, a small local civil-rights group, and later the local NAACP branch, which organized in 1963, went to school board meetings for years asking the members to integrate the schools.
“They always refused,” he said. “They said they didn’t think the time was right, that they didn’t have to do it and that they weren’t going to.
“We weren’t satisfied,” Tolbert said. “Both of our organizations wrote to the federal government and they looked into our complaint. They told the school board to desegregate or lose federal funding. They closed the black schools then.”
He said none of the black administrators in the black schools was given a position in the newly integrated schools.
The replacement building for the Page-Jackson all-black high school is today the Jefferson County Board of Education headquarters; the black Shepherdstown Elementary School is now the Shepherdstown Day Care Center; and Harpers Ferry Elementary now belongs to the National Park Service, Tolbert said.
Tolbert said he successfully lobbied to get the name of his alma mater in Institute, W.Va., changed from West Virginia State College to West Virginia State University.
He accomplished that and pushed for the King holiday designation in the state by visiting all 16 NAACP branches around the state and encouraging their memberships to launch letter-writing campaigns to state legislators and the governor.
“I led the charge. That was my job as president,” he said.
“What people don’t realize is the role that Jim Tolbert played in the civil-rights movement in West Virginia,” said George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County NAACP branch that nominated Tolbert for the award.
“Since the middle 1960s, he has been involved in, pushed or initiated every civil-rights bill that the state legislature passed.”
Rutherford said Tolbert was “directly responsible for getting African-Americans employed in positions that they were denied before the Civil Rights Act. He worked with the government to have funding withheld from the local municipalities because they were not in compliance with either federal or state civil-rights requirements.”
In 2006 and again in 2009, Tolbert was instrumental in getting U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd to direct $300,000 each for the commemorations of the founding of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP, and the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Rutherford said.
Tolbert has received other recognition for his work in civil rights, including the T.G. Nutter, West Virginia Civil Rights Day and Governor’s Living Dream awards.