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Summit highlights issues, needs of African-Americans in West Virginia

By BISHOP NASH

The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The socioeconomic disparities that plague West Virginians are amplified among the state’s African-American population, said the Rev. Matthew Watts, who organized the State of African Americans in West Virginia Summit hosted Monday at Marshall University.

The Rev. Matthew Watts speaks during the State of African Americans in West Virginia Summit on Monday at Marshall University in Huntington.
(Herald-Dispatch photo by Lori Wolfe)

The day-long discussion by community leaders, academics and students concentrated on defining the issues facing African-American West Virginians and how to address them with specific plans of actions.

Watts, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Charleston, added that as in the multitude of issues affecting West Virginia as a whole, there is no single issue debilitating the state’s black population of more than 63,000 – including low academic achievement, high unemployment or underemployment, high incarceration rates and serious health disparities contributing to shorter, sicker lives.

“There’s a combination of things that must be dealt with in concert,” he said.

A high rate of truancy or school suspension among black students was among the major issues Watts singled out. In the 15 counties containing 90 percent of the state’s African-American students, including Cabell County, those students are twice as likely to be suspended from school.

This contributes to poor academic standing and eventual juvenile delinquency, Watts noted. The youth confinement rate for African-Americans in West Virginia was more than 1.5 times the national average, according to a report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Highlighting the needs of the state and local minority communities, as well as providing a forum for discussion, has been a hallmark of Marshall President Jerome Gilbert’s tenure.

“Marshall University functions in many ways like a family, and as such, we take care of one another,” Gilbert said in a university release. “The findings from the summit will offer information to our university and our state that will allow us to make progress in closing the gap on many deep-seated issues. It will also help us create a lasting, positive impact to benefit our communities and beyond.”

The summit was sponsored by the Marshall University President’s Commission on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion; the Marshall University Research Corporation; and the Helping Other People Excel (HOPE) Community Development Corporation of Charleston.

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