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Though never present in great numbers, Romani people, commonly (and controversially) referred to as “Gypsies,” have long been noted throughout West Virginia, part of the history and folklore of the state. The Romani were a frequent subject of interest for the communities they camped near; popular myths and tales centering on the Romani circulated in many local areas. The community of Gypsy, in Harrison County, was named for the traveling groups of Romani who once favored the bottomlands of the West Fork River as a camping spot. Historically, however, Romani have rarely been nomads by choice; generally they were forced on the move throughout Europe in response to racial prejudice.

A group of Romani settled permanently in Stumpy Bottom in Princeton, a small piece of lowland today located alongside U.S. 460. The original settlers came in caravans of covered wagons and set up tents in the mid-20th century. They initially traded horses, and then fixed stoves. They ran a septic business and later established a paving business. Their community has endured some scandals since the settlement, including a murder trial in 1995.

The original Romanies were from India, and later migrated through Europe after centuries of slavery in the Middle East and Romania. They appeared in Europe by the 15th century, where they were popularly referred to as Gypsies because they were mistakenly assumed to have originated in Egypt. Their language, also called Romani, is still spoken in some communities.

Romani came to America among the early settlers, sometimes having been deported from European countries. However, most American Romani came during the big migration from eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a period during which they suffered under increasingly discriminatory government policies and racist popular opinion. Indeed, they were to suffer heavily during the Holocaust, when as many as 1.5 million Romani people may have been killed.

Larger groups of Romani were sometimes organized into “kumpanias,” similar to unions, each with an elder or chief to decide matters for the community. Kumpania chiefs were often mistaken as Gypsy “Kings.” In November 1931 Weirton was the site of the funeral of one such king, Zeke Marks. More than 10,000 visitors came to the Schwerha funeral home. Marks lay unkempt in a bronze casket. A scarf sealed his mouth, and a rope bound his ankles. His hands were on his chest, and he held a $5 gold piece. Around him lay his possessions, including the paid bill for the funeral.

This Article was written by Jane Kraina

Last Revised on January 21, 2021

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Sources

Sway, Marlene. Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Kraina, Jane & Mary Zwierzchowski. Death of a Gypsy King. Goldenseal, (Winter 1998).

Strange Rites over Body of Gypsy King. Weirton Daily Times, 11/21/1931.

Hancock, Ian. We Are the Romani People. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2002.

Cite This Article

Kraina, Jane "Romani People." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 21 January 2021. Web. 07 March 2021.

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