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General Edward Greer
West Virginia’s First Black General

By Ancella Bickley

General Edward Greer
Major General (Ret.) Edward Greer at his home in El Paso, Texas. Among his many honors, he received the Distinguished West Virginian Award in 1998. Photograph by Lewis Woodyard.

When Gary native Major General Edward Greer was promoted to Brigadier General in the U.S. Army in 1972, he became the first black person from West Virginia to achieve that rank.

“I was not surprised when he was named a general,” LTC (Ret.) Preston Davis of Washington, D.C., says. “Of the many officers that I've known, Ed Greer had all of the attributes for promotion to general — the character, the military experience, and the warmth of personality that well fitted him for the tasks that the army set before him. He was always a person to be greatly admired.”

With a career spanning more than 32 years, three wars, and numerous military postings, General Greer was among the early group of black men whose leadership capabilities propelled them into spotlighted positions in the early days of racial integration of the armed forces. Born March 8, 1924, in Gary, McDowell County, Greer was a May 1942 graduate of Kimball High School. He entered West Virginia State College that fall.

The college had an ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program with mandatory enrollment, so Edward Greer and his friend Preston Davis became a part of it. Although the progress of World War II did not permit either man to remain in college long enough to complete the ROTC training and gain a commission at that time, their enrollment in the ROTC program allowed them to delay entering the service and finish their freshman year. “Rather than wait to be drafted,” General Greer says, “all of the males in our class enlisted when the school year ended in May 1943.”

When WWII ended, both Greer and Davis went back to West Virginia State, finished their college degrees, and were commissioned as army officers through the ROTC. Named a Distinguished Military Graduate in the 1948 graduating class, General Greer received a regular army commission, which assured a lifetime army career if he chose to follow it. In 1950 he and Preston Davis served in Korea together in the 159th Field Artillery Battalion, supporting the 24th Infantry Regiment, a black unit honored for its deployment in the West in the early days of settlement there and known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

“We have maintained our friendship for over 60 years,” LTC Davis says. “General Greer was a fine soldier and also our mentor. Many of us from West Virginia State who were in the service turned to him for advice if we had a problem. He talked straight to us. He was a friend, but he was honest with you. He told you what you needed to hear.”

Receiving his second star — the promotion to major general — in 1974, General Greer retired in 1976. His last assignment was as the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Military Personnel Center at the Pentagon.

He looks back with pride at a distinguished military career and at his formative years in West Virginia. “I was born in Gary, West Virginia,” he says while sitting in the kitchen of his home in El Paso, Texas. “But later we moved to Welch. There were 27 steps from our house in Welch down to the street,” he says with a chuckle, as his wife places a bowl of fried apples on the table before him.

“His mother served apples every day,” Mrs. Jewell Greer says. “I don't know if that was West Virginia cuisine or not, but he loves them.”

Like many other black people, General Greer’s family migrated to southern West Virginia in the early 1900’s to take advantage of work opportunities. When the mines were working at full strength, word of mouth, family connections, and even newspaper ads brought in black workers by train, automobile, bus, and any other means that they could muster to get to McDowell County.

“My folks were from North Carolina,” General Greer says. “My father, Walter Greer, left there looking for work. He and my mother first went to Pennsylvania, and my older brother, Bob, and my sister, Lillian, were born there. Then my family came to Gary where my father found work in the mines. He was employed by the Pennsylvania-based U.S. Coal & Coke Company, which operated the mines in Gary.

“I had a good childhood in West Virginia,” he recalls.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.