Samuel Starks—the first African-American in the nation to serve as a state librarian—died of peritonitis in Charleston on April 3, 1908, at age 42. He served as state librarian the last seven years of his life, having been appointed by Governor A. B. White.
Outside of West Virginia, Starks was best known for his work with the Knights of Pythias. A charter member of Charleston’s Capitol City Lodge Number 1, Starks served 16 years as grand chancellor of the state’s black Pythians. In 1897, he was elected supreme chancellor—the lodge’s highest national office.
Under Starks’s leadership, the national membership grew from 9,000 to nearly 150,000, including 38,000 in the Order of Calanthe, the Pythian’s women’s department. As supreme chancellor, Starks promoted entrepreneurship and encouraged lodges to use their collective purchasing power to invest in property. To support this effort in West Virginia, the lodge incorporated the Pythian Mutual Investment Fund in 1902.
Thousands attended Samuel Starks’s funeral in 1908, and many black-owned businesses closed in his honor. In 1911, the Pythians erected a large monument at his grave in Charleston’s Spring Hill Cemetery.