Photo by Phinishing Touches @PhinishingTouch
In this world, there are places that have been made popular because of their attractions, The Hill was such a place. Black folks who lived and travelled through Berkeley County in West Virginia spread its fame. The Hill is where life as I know it began. How this one specific area got its name, The Hill, is a mystery to me—especially since it lacked any considerably large hill. Looking back at my childhood, I can come to only one conclusion and that is that The Hill was cursed. I honestly believe that spirits, unbeknownst to all of us who walked its streets, plagued and tormented every one of us who had the misfortune of crossing their paths. In the case of The Hill, I can find no other logical explanation for all the tragedies that took place there and the deep emotional scars that I incurred while growing up there.
As I recall my first memories of The Hill, I ponder what the previous generations must have been like that formed the place before me. I will never forget my early images of it for as long as I live. It had and still to this day does have what I would consider by true West Virginia standards a small hill with a single set of railroad tracks running through it. In most small West Virginia towns, the railroad tracks often ran alongside a much larger hill carrying coal, but that was not the case here. The trains did carry coal but there were no coal mines on The Hill. All I know is that The Hill was the name used by both blacks and whites in that part of West Virginia to describe the district where the majority of the poor blacks lived of which my family was one. It was the place where I was born.
The Hill back then possessed a very distinct smell. One could not escape the sewer odor emanating from the many outhouses that belonged to families whose old houses were packed in like sardines in a can. The poor condition of the outhouses usually mimicked that of the adjoining house. I will go on record to say that the abundant use of alcohol on The Hill also contributed to its foul smell. Large amounts of alcohol were consumed and it was not always disposed of properly. I simply thank the good Lord for the trees and flowers in the neighborhood which freshened the air we were forced to breathe. On the other hand, not every house on The Hill was old with an outhouse. There were a few decent homes sprinkled throughout the neighborhood that had indoor plumbing.
The Hill was a sleeping lion during the daytime but at nighttime it woke up and everyone within distance could hear its roar. The Hill was filled with local and distant travelers who patronized the three main establishments—Big Joe’s, the 701 Club, and the Elks. These establishments offered everything from food, drinking, and dancing to pool play and gambling. Big Joe’s which was the hottest gambling site on The Hill, served alcohol while also hosting a restaurant and pool hall. It was considered by everyone who frequented the area as the most dangerous of the clubs located on The Hill. A person did not wander into Big Joe’s by accident. Located above its restaurant and pool hall were bedrooms that people used in the same fashion as hotel rooms.
Secondly, there was the 701 Club which was just as popular as Big Joe’s. It had a slightly different flare to it. It too served alcohol like Big Joe’s but instead of a restaurant with menu, it specialized in fried chicken. I would dare to say that Kentucky Fried Chicken had nothing on the 701 Club. Folks came from far and near to purchase a piece of fried chicken from the 701 Club. In addition to serving drinks and chicken, the 701 Club was known as being a popular scene for dancing. Patrons crowded in it to enjoy the latest dance tunes. The owners of the club brought in local disc jockeys and bands from out of town to play music. It was located around the corner from Big Joe’s. Similarly, the 701 Club, Big Joe’s, and the Elks were black-owned businesses.
Last but not least, there was the Elks. It did not portray the same fire power as Big Joe’s or the 701 Club, but it did hold its own when it came to meeting the needs of the patrons who were seeking pleasure on The Hill. The building that housed the Elks did not have the same glare as the two other establishments. In fact, someone could have mistaken it for an abandoned building. It was located around the corner from Big Joe’s within a stone’s throw distance. Someone standing on its front porch could easily look across the railroad tracks and see the patrons entering and exiting Big Joe’s. In fact, it was the smallest of the three establishments and was considered by most a private club. It was mainly used to host dances. I was always amazed at how the Elks accommodated people given that its rooms were small.
The three clubs together supplied a night life on The Hill that made it the most happening place in Berkeley County on any given Friday or Saturday night. During the day, The Hill was a lot calmer but it still gave the impression of a sleeping lion that if woken could unleash its fury on helpless prey. People were drawn to it—especially men. I do not ever remember a day going by where I did not see at least one man standing outside somewhere on The Hill. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that their interest was not directed towards something more positive like the churches that were also located on The Hill. There was basically one church for every club. I would go as far to speculate that the place called The Hill, though cursed, could have been worse if not for the praying saints in those churches.