Author: Charlene Marshall
About the Author:
Charlene Marshall did not set out to become mayor of Morgantown. But when five people told her not to run for office, she decided it was a good idea.
Marshall grew up in rural Monongalia County, the daughter of a coal miner who died in the mines. She attended the county’s segregated schools in the 1940s and 50s, graduating from Monongalia High School. Unable to enroll in West Virginia University under the laws of the era, she briefly attended Bluefield State College.
By the 1980s, she and her husband Rogers were established homeowners in the city’s Greenmont neighborhood. The area, close to downtown with a mix of Black and white homeowners and student rentals, was beginning to show signs of deterioration. “We formed a community group, and started to meet in my house,” she recalls. “It was before we had air conditioning, so when it was hot we’d meet in my driveway.” Their main goal was to get the city to take action against a handful of landlords whose decrepit houses were hurting the whole neighborhood. The group appointed her as president and spokesperson.
“We wrote letters to every member of council, the city manager and the city clerk. And I started going to every meeting to ask what they would do to help us. Meeting after meeting, there was nothing done.”
The problem wasn’t confined to one part of Morgantown. Neighborhood groups were springing up all over town, and several asked Marshall’s help in getting organized and taking their concerns to the city.
An election was coming up. A rumor started that she would run for council.
Her phone began to ring in the evenings. “This was before Caller ID, so you couldn’t see who was calling,” she said. “They didn’t say who they were. But four different people called me to tell me not to run. They all said the same thing – that a Black woman couldn’t win in Morgantown.”
It wasn’t just white people, she recalls. She heard from several friends that some of Morgantown’s small but well-connected Black community were not excited about her candidacy.
“What I thought was, if I couldn’t win, why are you all so worried I’ll run?”
Then a University professor who was active in local politics showed up at her front door. “He rang my doorbell, and stood on my porch to tell me he was putting together a slate. He had a guy for our ward already, so I should not run. I thought to myself, ‘How far south do you think we are?’”
“That was the deciding factor for me. If they were so scared of me running, I must have a chance.”
She ran, and won. When the new council, including several neighborhood group leaders from around the city, met for the first time, they elected Marshall mayor.
No one realized that night that she was making history. But a short time later, her friend Carolyn Bailey Lewis told her she had researched the records, and could not find any other city in the state that had elected a Black woman as mayor.
Charlene Marshall’s term as mayor is remembered as a time of rebirth and regrowth for the city; the effects are still felt in the vibrant Monongalia County economy and growing population. Her successes led to several terms as a member of the House of Delegates, where she was a leading advocate for education, equal justice, and human rights for all.
At every step, there were people who tried to discourage her – officials from other towns who thought she was a waitress at a statewide conference, parking attendants who tried to chase her out of the members-only spaces at the State Capitol, other legislators who dismissed and tried to silence her. She outlasted them all.
“Most people are good, and I’m very grateful for all the old friends who supported me and all the new friends I made along the way. But I learned that you have to have a thick skin, and make the decision that you won’t let people hold you back. If they are not coming along, you just move ahead without them.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 West Virginia Black Heritage Festival has been canceled but that doesn't mean we're taking a break!