Born in Charleston in 1866, Samuel W. Starks became the first African-American in the United States to serve as a state librarian. Appointed to the position in 1901 by Governor Albert Blakeslee White, Starks served until his death.
Outside West Virginia, Starks was best known for his work with the Knights of Pythias. A charter member of Charleston’s Capitol City Lodge No. 1, Starks served 16 years as the grand chancellor of West Virginia’s black Pythians. In 1897, he was elected as the supreme chancellor, the lodge’s highest national office. He was reelected several times.
Under Starks’s leadership, the national membership grew from 9,000 to 146,869, including 38,000 in the Order of Calanthe, the Pythians women’s department. From his position as supreme chancellor, Starks promoted a concept of entrepreneurial unity and encouraged lodges to use their collective purchasing power to invest in property. To facilitate this in West Virginia, the lodge incorporated the Pythian Mutual Investment Fund in 1902.
Starks died in Charleston on April 3, 1908 at the age of 42. Thousands of people attended his funeral, and many black-owned businesses closed in his honor. In 1911, the Pythians erected an obelisk at his grave site in Spring Hill Cemetery in Charleston. His house in Charleston was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
Read the National Register nomination.
This Article was written by Ancella R. Bickley
Last Revised on January 28, 2013
Bickley, Ancella R. From Samuel W. Starks to the Sojourners. Charleston Daily Mail, 2/27/1987.
Charleston Advocate, 7/11/1907, 2/14/1907, 4/7/1908, 1/27/1910, 11/23/1911.
Collins, Rodney. "Nomination of the Starks House to the National Register of Historic Places," in Ancella R. Bickley, ed, Our Mount Vernons: Historic Register Listings of Sites Significant to the Black History of West Virginia. Huntington: Carter G. Woodson Memorial Foundation & Drinko Academy, 1997.