As West Virginia University works to ensure social justice on campus, Black alumni are renewing efforts to expand opportunities for minority students –specifically Black, Indigenous and people of color – through the Horace and Geraldine Belmear Scholarship.
Nearly 40 years ago, Terri Hornsby was among the top 15% of her high school’s senior class. Yet, no one outside her family ever encouraged her to go to college. Until Horace “Happy” Belmear Jr. visited her house one day.
Belmear recruited Black students to West Virginia University in the same way that college coaches often recruit athletes. He went to their homes, met with their families, shared his contact information and assured their parents that he – along with his wife, Geraldine – would take care of them. In doing so, the Belmears became surrogate parents to a generation of Black students spanning more than two decades at WVU.
“They just kind of gave you a sense that somebody else cared about you, and if you had a need or concern, you could easily address it with them,” said Hornsby, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at WVU and runs her own promotional advertising company in Texas. “Some kids who go away from home for the first time and have all this freedom kind of spiral out of control. Others are completely focused and engaged. There was a comfort level knowing that I could always contact the Belmears. It was an extended sense of family.”
As WVU works to ensure social justice on campus, Black alumni are renewing efforts to honor the legacy of excellence the Belmears cultivated among Black students. They hope to expand opportunities for minority students – specifically Black, Indigenous and people of color – to succeed by increasing private support for the Horace and Geraldine Belmear Scholarship.
WVU alumnus and former football player JT Thomas spearheaded efforts to establish the scholarship more than a decade ago.
“Many of us credit the Belmears with recruiting and retaining African American students here at West Virginia University,” Thomas said. “We wanted their legacy and this scholarship to mean just that and to have the same sort of impact, to be able to help recruit with regard to a scholarship being available to minority students.”
WEST VIRGINIA PROUD
The late Horace and Geraldine Belmear met and married as students at what is now West Virginia State University, then a segregated land-grant institution for Black students, outside Charleston. Both “came from nothing,” according to eldest son Michael Belmear. Geraldine grew up in Fairmont, West Virginia, about 25 minutes from West Virginia University, which did not yet accept African American students. Horace was a native of Bardstown, Kentucky, near Louisville, where racial violence was common.
The young couple graduated in 1940 and eventually moved to Fairmont, where Horace worked at the all-Black Dunbar School for 18 years following service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He racked up three state titles in athletics, along with several honors for outstanding coaching and teaching, yet he lost his job following integration.
Horace earned his master’s degree in physical education from WVU in the 1950s, and Geraldine later followed in his footsteps, earning a master’s degree in home economics education in 1962. She worked with 4-H clubs, homemaker organizations and other community groups for 30 years as an administrator for WVU Extension Service; in 1966, she became the nation’s first Black county extension agent when she was appointed home demonstration agent for Marion County.
Horace was hired by WVU as director of foreign admissions in 1971 and later appointed assistant dean of admissions and records in 1979. The following year, he began working to recruit and retain Black students. Geraldine initially began working as a part-time adviser to African American students and took on that role full-time when she retired from Extension in 1978.
Michael Belmear said his parents understood the importance of outreach, support and encouragement for Black students and saw great potential at WVU, despite the discrimination they experienced. He cited one specific example: In a doctoral course Horace took, his white classmates congregated on the opposite side of the room to avoid sitting next to him. The professor defused the situation and made Horace feel more comfortable by teaching from his side of the room.
“I think it was important to them that they do everything they could to get as many African American students as possible at West Virginia [University] because of the things that my dad had experienced,” Tracy Belmear, the youngest of their three children, said. “This was their home state. This was their school. … They raised their family there. That’s why West Virginia was important to them. They bled blue and gold.”
LIKE MOM & DAD
As high school graduation neared, Carmen Williams was unsure where to go to college. West Virginia State College and Marshall University were close to her childhood home in Saint Albans, West Virginia. Yet, she was drawn to friends and programs at WVU.
Horace Belmear initially swayed her with assurances that she would be cared for at WVU. Then he gave her a financial incentive to choose WVU: He steered her toward a scholarship, which she ultimately received, and later drove her from Morgantown to Charleston and back – roughly 300 miles round-trip, in a single day – to accept it.
“If you knew the Belmears, they were there for you,” Williams said. “We were like a community, and they were like the parents of the community.”
A family portrait of Geraldine and Horace Belmear. (Photo courtesy of Michael & Robin Belmear.)
Horace – dubbed “Happy” after an early comic strip character – was a gentlemanly father figure who adored his wife and family. Known for her impeccable head-to-toe style, Geraldine was a gregarious confidante who emphasized the value of confidence and self-respect.
Collectively, they offered love, advice and more to help students excel beyond the classroom, while also holding them to a high standard of behavior. They were role models for the members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, two of nine national historically Black fraternities and sororities. Horace and Geraldine joined their respective Greek organizations in college and remained active members throughout their lives, serving as advisers for the chapters at WVU.
The Belmears also encouraged University officials to provide greater support for Black students, both personally and through diversity-focused initiatives. Michael Belmear recalled his parents hosting a holiday dinner for WVU administrators at which his father encouraged everyone in attendance to seek out a Black student and get to know him or her better. They also played an instrumental role in establishing WVU’s Center for Black Culture and Research and PASSkey, a freshman orientation program that helps Black students adjust to college life by pairing them with mentors.
A GREATER PURPOSE
Like parents who would do anything for their children, the Belmears often went above and beyond their professional obligations to ensure student success. They sewed clothes, provided meals, offered a place to stay and much more for WVU students. Because Horace often played a role in recruiting Black student-athletes, Tracy Belmear said his parents even took late-night calls at home from WVU coaches.
“If something happened with a player, my mom and dad would get that call at 12:00 or 1:00 or whatever time in the morning. And it would be from [former football coach] Bobby Bowden, saying ‘Geri’ or ‘Happy,’ depending on who answered the phone, ‘so-and-so got into a fight,’ or ‘so-and-so is not going to class. Can you talk to him?’ And they surely would.”
Many Black students came to WVU from urban areas where they were used to being in communities of color. The Belmears often helped them navigate the challenges that arose due to Morgantown’s comparatively rural environment and predominantly white population, from finding hair-care products to dealing with discrimination.
Washington, D.C., native Howard Barrett became the first Black student featured on WVU’s course catalog, then printed in hard copy, with support from the Belmears. Horace also suggested Barrett apply for a scholarship that eliminated his college debt and encouraged Barrett to persist with his coursework as it became more difficult. He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1986.
“They were a wonderful representation of a couple that seemed to know their purpose and execute on that,” Barrett said. “And their purpose was bigger than them. Their purpose was helping us. Their purpose was helping hundreds of people like myself to adjust and flourish in a different or strange environment from where we may have come from, to begin to assimilate and to become young adults prepared to make contributions to this world.”
The Belmears maintained their nurturing relationship with many alumni well beyond graduation. Dr. Patrice Harris, a three-time graduate of WVU who served as the first Black woman president of the American Medical Association, was among those who came back to see the couple when she could. During one visit when Mrs. Belmear was in the hospital, she complained of hip pain and Harris laid her hand where it hurt. Geraldine told Harris she had “healing hands.” Those words and her encouragement played a role in Harris’ decision to continue to pursue her dream to become a physician.
“They are just a part of the tapestry of who I am today, with being supportive and encouraging and just being a source of strength on the days that were tough,” Harris said.
Williams stayed in touch with Geraldine long after leaving WVU, without earning her degree, to move to Texas. Whenever they spoke, Geraldine urged Williams to go back to school – and she eventually did. Nearly 20 years later, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration from the University of Houston and a Master of Business Administration from Texas Woman’s University.
“She didn’t get to see it, but I know she would be very proud,” Williams said.
LEAVING A LEGACY
In the mid-2000s, several Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority members – including Harris, Hornsby and Williams, along with Barrett, Price and other members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity – came up with the idea to create a scholarship that would carry on the Belmears’ legacy. Their enthusiasm inspired Thomas, then president of WVU’s Black Alumni Group, to lead the charge.
Those groups raised $25,000 to establish the endowed scholarship, a lasting tribute that moved Horace to tears. Hornsby said he hugged everyone involved when they told him about the scholarship and shared how much he missed Geraldine, who died at 87 in May 2005. Horace passed five years later, at the age of 93. The couple was married for 67 years.
Barrett said the Belmears ultimately laid a foundation to help WVU grow and become more inclusive.
Geraldine Belmear (far right) poses Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority members. Standing, from left to right: Deneen Morris Joyner, Dawn Booker, Priscilla Scruggs and Terri Hornsby. Seated, from left to right: Carmen Williams and a guest Aunt (member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority), who came to celebrate her niece’s pinning as a new initiate into the sorority. (Photo courtesy of Terri Hornsby.)
“The fact that the Belmears were there enabled WVU to eventually have 800-plus African American students, instead of 200 or 300. They made it more attractive to the next year of college-bound students or high school students that were considering WVU,” Barrett said. “So, they enabled the University to progress as being a school that could cultivate young African American lives and allow you not to feel excluded. Having a small African American microcosm would make you feel safe and help you to navigate many of the situations you might come across.”
Hornsby appreciates how the Belmears fostered a greater affinity for WVU among Black alumni of that era, because of their shared experience. She, Price, Harris and others said they hope to increase BIPOC student enrollment, make higher education more affordable and encourage alumni to give back to WVU through the Belmear Scholarship. Michael Belmear said their efforts reflect the same sense of personal responsibility that guided his parents’ extraordinary achievements.
“Our society that we’re in now could learn a lot from my mom and dad, what they taught me,” Belmear said. “That I wasn’t better than anybody else, but no one was better than me. To be fair. To be yourself, but don’t hurt other people’s feelings. To be kind. … My mother was constantly telling me, ‘Michael, you have been given a lot. Consequently, you owe a lot.’ And I think they taught that to students.”
The Belmear Scholarship was established through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University. To contribute, visit the secure online giving page for the Horace and Geraldine Belmear Scholarship.