The Community of Harlem Heights; Oak Hill, WV

map of subdivision
Harlem Heights is an atypical African American community located within the City of Oak Hill, West Virginia. While most African American communities in the New River area were coal mining or industrially-based, the residents of Harlem Heights had a variety of occupations. In addition, the residents of coal mining towns usually lived in company houses, but most residents of Harlem Heights were homeowners.1
people standing in front of house

photo courtesy of Betty Sims Brown

In the Harlem Heights area, the Homeseekers Land and Building Company charged “very little for lots.” This allowed African Americans to be able to purchase land and build a home. In what was basically an open field, African Americans began building homes and establishing a community. Jessie Barret notes that;

“[Harlem Heights] had five black families when I moved there in 1942. The remainder of the area was farm land. The section they called Harlem Heights had actually three streets. Lincoln Street, High Street, and Lewis [street]. [At that time] everything was inaccessible. We had the old fashioned outhouse for quite a while. We had about two wells with this huge long bucket you draw with. We had to carry our water [and] catch rain water for laundry. We had it rough for about a couple of years.” 2

As the community began to develop; paved roads replaced dirt roads. Residents acquired indoor toilets and running water as well as other amenities and services. As the population grew, the community needed a school. In 1947, the Harlem Heights School was built and accommodated students in the first through eighth grade. High school students were bused seven miles to DuBois High School in Mount Hope, West Virginia. When schools were integrated in the 1960s, Harlem Heights students began attending the white elementary schools and Collins High School in Oak Hill. The school at Harlem Heights closed its doors in 1967.3
girl on bike
Betty Sims on bike

photo courtesy of Betty Sims Brown

Harlem Heights residents held a variety of occupations. Several were entrepreneurs who owned and operated stores and businesses right in the community. Resident Terrance Tango Leggett remembers Ms. Classy’s store, later known as Shug’s Place, where residents could purchase necessities. Down the street was Mr. Bozo’s store, with a dance hall on the second level. Other residents worked as teachers, mining inspectors, seamstresses, and ministers. A few made their living as farmers. Sterling Hughes raised cattle and sold milk, cheese, butter, eggs and homemade hot dinner rolls from his farm. Some residents, especially women, held service-oriented jobs. Of course, there were a few coal miners, but they did not represent the majority of residents.4

The people of Harlem Heights took pride in their community by keeping it clean and attractive. They actively supported their churches, civic clubs, and fraternal organizations. Some residents worked as community activists to move their neighborhood forward. In the 1970s, social worker Opal Leggett was responsible for starting and overseeing the Head Start program in Fayette County. Fayette County Legislators, Diane Smallwood and Reverend Frank Robinson as well as the honorable William Robinson were active as political organizers and community developers.5 For his impact in the community and as a professional basketball player, a neighborhood park was built in honor of federal mine inspector Russell E. Mathews.
black and white photo of two women
Mary Sims and Hassie Wilkins

photo courtesy of Betty Sims Brown

Through all of these efforts, Harlem Heights grew to become a rather upscale African American community. Though relatively small, it grew large enough and politically active enough to have its own voting precinct. Today, the community has a Masonic lodge and three churches: The Community Baptist Church, The First Baptist Church, and The Glorious Church of God in Christ.6

1. Ancella Bickley, To Black in Fayette, (Fayetteville: The Centennial Committee of the Second Baptist Church of Fayetteville, WV and the Fayette County Black Caucus, 1993), 52.
2. Ibid, 52-53.
3. Interview with Terrance Tango Leggett by John Bollinger NPS, 11/ 30/ 2015. Also, Bickley, To Be Black in Fayette, 52-58.
4. Interview with Tango Leggett.
5. Ibid.
6. Bickley, To Black in Fayette, 58.

Last updated: November 1, 2017

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