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“No Black Folks, No WV” – The African-American Key To State History

PHOTO: Many say West Virginia's history has been in part defined by African-American history, starting with the role of slavery in the civil war, but later including early integration in the coalfields. Photo from the Library of Congress.
PHOTO: Many say West Virginia's history has been in part defined by African-American history, starting with the role of slavery in the civil war, but later including early integration in the coalfields. Photo from the Library of Congress.
June 14, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – As West Virginia celebrates its 150th birthday, a series of events will highlight how African-American history is central to the state’s story.

The Rev. Ron English of Charleston says the state might not even exist if everyone had accepted slavery.

He says the frontier western counties had long drifted away from slave-holding eastern Virginia, and that many on this side of the mountains had little sympathy for the plantation owners who went on to run the Confederacy.

He explains that it's no accident that West Virginia was born in the crucible of the Civil War.

"The question that really led to statehood was slavery,” he explains. “And Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation happened at the same time that the state was founded."

English says there were a few plantations here, including one on the site of a school now named for prominent black educator Mary Snow.

English is coordinating a series of events next week highlighting black West Virginia history, starting with a Juneteenth celebration Sunday at the Culture Center in Charleston.

After the Civil War, blacks were violently suppressed in much of the country. But English says West Virginia became known for allowing African-Americans to go to college and was home to early black schools such as West Virginia State University and Storer College.

He says it was Storer that made the Eastern Panhandle the site of a second monumental event in Black history – the movement that led to the founding of the NAACP.

"It was in Harpers Ferry that John Brown's raid took place,” English says. “And it was also in Harpers Ferry that the Niagara Movement developed."

English says by the first part of the 20th century, employment in the mines was allowing black families stability and a better income than was available in many other places. And he adds that the coalfields were unusual for the way they accepted African-Americans.

The United Mine Workers Union was even integrated from when it was founded in 1890.

"All miners came out of the mines looking the same,” he points out. “The coal mining industry opening up in West Virginia became a place blacks were able to find a decent wage."




Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV