Jessica Lilly Published

West Virginia Student To Study Welsh And W.Va. Black Working Class Connections

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Myya Helm is one of only 41 students in America to receive the prestigious Marshall Scholarship from the United Kingdom.

Growing up as a black woman in West Virginia, Helm says people often underestimated her. But with a little encouragement from her professor at WVU, she won a Marshall Scholarship award from the United Kingdom, making her one of 41 students in the U.S. to earn such an honor.

Helm’s research has a strong historic connection to the Mountain State. She plans to explore the connections between the Welsh black working class and the West Virginia black working class while living in Wales.

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Myya Helm grew up in W.Va.

“As a black woman being raised and living in one of the most predominantly white places in the United States, I’m often put in a box,” Helm said. “People, even in academia, usually assume and tell me what I can and can’t do.”

But one professor saw her potential. “Dr. Christina Fattore at WVU was the first person to tell me that I was good enough to apply for prestigious scholarships.”


Lamont Helm (left), daughter Myya Helm, Machelle Lopez (Lamont’s partner) and Myya’s sister Adaira Helm (right)

Helms was a double major in political science and international studies with a minor in Arabic studies at WVU. She drew from her personal journey to discover her family roots to guide her scholarship application. Helms said she was always curious about who she was and wanted to learn more about her history.

“For Americans like myself that are descended from enslaved African people, I think the roots of our ancestry are often a mystery,” Helm said. “It’s a reminder that 150 years ago, black people weren’t considered people in America.”

Helms dug through death certificates, wills and countless records to explore her family roots. She found out that several of her ancestors were coal miners in southern West Virginia.

“The men in my family were the reason that the United Mine Workers of America organizers began organizing the southern coalfields in 1920,” Helm said. “The UMWA was one of the first unions to have an anti-racist clause in their constitution. They were considered the most important union in terms of organizing black workers in the early 20th century, much sooner than the Civil Rights Movement had even happened that their black and white workers work together to achieve justice for all of them.”

Her curiosity led her to exploring the connections between West Virginia in black history to Welsh black history.

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Myya Helm grew up in W.Va.

“Whenever I was in school, I never learned about black coal miners in West Virginia,” Helm said. “That is almost exactly the same as the stories of many Welsh people. Coal mining is integral to Welsh culture as well. Just like it is here, people don’t learn about the black coal miners in Wales, even though coal mining is so integral to the culture and history of both regions.”

She added: “A lot of black men from the
Caribbean and from Northern Africa immigrated to the United Kingdom to work in the Welsh coal fields, just like a lot of men migrated in the United States to escape the Jim Crow South. They came to West Virginia for new opportunities there. That’s just the beginning of the many, many connections between Wales and West Virginia and why I want to keep researching.”

While studying at Cardiff University in Cardiff, Wales, she hopes to find out what the root of oppression is.

“From there I want to see how black coal miners in West Virginia and Wales fought those oppressions historically, because we don’t know,” Helm said. “That history has been erased from common knowledge. If we look at that, can we replicate what those black communities successfully did, and creating interracial working class solidarity, to do the same thing today to benefit the labor movement to benefit the Black Lives Matter movement and to help fight oppression today, however, it may appear.”


Myya’s sister Adaira Helm (left), Myya’s grandmother Anita Webb, Myya Helm and Myya’s mother Amanda Cahill (right)

The core of her goals with her research is to learn from the past and history. Helm hopes her research will help to influence and develop policies that have worked before.

“Historical thinking is incredibly valuable to policies, especially for economic development,” Helm said. “One of my main goals with this research in my academic career is to ultimately help create policy that benefits working class people, whether in West Virginia or in Wales.

“When making policy recommendations in the future, I will use historical methods and approaches to provide the best possible contextual information, because everyone can learn almost anything (about) almost anything is going to turn out by looking at history, and we can see negative patterns we can learn from that and how to change that.
“The main fact is that history matters. And black history matters. And this black history matters. And in learning just how exactly the working class came together, or whatever else, we can make it happen again, and we can create a West Virginia that welcomes workers that provides economic stability and that is the best place to build and grow a business. But first we need to analyze and learn from the positive and the negative patterns of the past. To create a better future.”