West Virginia was a product of the Civil War. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Western Virginians soon formed a new state. Although Booker T. Washington and others made the journey across the mountains, West Virginia did not become a general refuge for slaves and free blacks. The state’s first constitution provided for the phasing out of slavery, but only the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 completely abolished slavery in West Virginia. Although the state’s constitutional convention of 1872 guaranteed the vote, it also approved the segregationist clause that ‘‘white and colored shall not be taught in the same school’’ and sanctioned a racially stratified and unequal society that would persist.
As the state industrialized following Reconstruction, many Southern blacks moved to West Virginia and made the complicated transition from agriculture to life in the coal towns. The state’s black population increased from 25,800 in 1880 to more than 64,000 in 1910, and to nearly 115,000 in 1930. The expansion of the coal industry underlay this dynamic population growth. Blacks made up more than 20 percent of West Virginia’s total mining labor force from the 1890s through the early 20th century.
As the African-American population increased, so did racial hostility. In 1919, for example, a white mob lynched two black miners at Chapmanville, Logan County. During the early 1920s, chapters of the Ku Klux Klan emerged in Logan, Mercer, and Kanawha counties and elsewhere. Moreover, racial injustice before the law also prevailed, as in several cases of black men accused of crimes against whites, especially charges of rape. In 1922, for example, Governor Ephraim Morgan denied a plea for clemency and permitted a black man, Leroy Williams, to hang for rape of a white woman despite evidence suggesting his innocence.
As elsewhere, African-Americans developed a variety of institutional and political responses to inequality. As early as 1872, they urged the adoption of a provision that would permit black men to serve on juries in the state’s courts of law. Membership in black religious organizations (predominantly the Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches) climbed from less than 15,000 before World War I to nearly 33,000 in 1926. Membership in black fraternal orders and mutual benefit societies reached about 32,000 before declining during the late 1920s. The emergence of West Virginia branches and affiliates of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, as well as the McDowell County Colored Republican Organization and the black McDowell Times weekly newspaper, rounded out the institutional life of blacks in West Virginia before the onslaught of the Great Depression.
In 1918, three black men were elected to the state legislature: Charleston attorney T. G. Nutter; Keystone attorney Harry J. Capehart; and coal miner John V. Coleman of Fayette County. By 1930, African-Americans claimed two state colleges (West Virginia State and Bluefield State); a tuberculosis sanitarium; homes for the deaf, blind, aged, and infirm; schools for delinquent youth; a Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics; and an expanding number of public elementary, junior high, and high schools.
After receiving the vote along with white women in 1920, black women increased their influence in the political life of the state. In 1927, when the black legislator E. Howard Harper died in office, his wife, Minnie Buckingham Harper, served the remainder of his term. Mrs. Harper was the first black woman to become a member of a legislative body in the United States. Memphis Tennessee Garrison, the school teacher and civil rights activist, was among the prominent black women in the institutional, social, and political life of the state. During the 1920s, she initiated the NAACP’s national Christmas Seal campaign, and later won the association’s coveted Madame C. J. Walker Gold Medal for her work.
The Depression and rapid mechanization of coal production undercut the black mining labor force after World War II. The percentage of black miners dropped steadily to about 12 percent in 1950, 6.6 percent in 1960, and 5.2 percent in 1970. By 1980, African-Americans made up less than 3 percent of the state’s coal miners.
African-Americans in West Virginia did not sit quietly as the times changed around them. They used the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decision to push for full access to the state’s schools, colleges, and universities, but the fruits of integration were sometimes bitter. Much was lost as the tradition of all-black public institutions gradually came to an end. Bluefield State College and West Virginia State University became predominantly white institutions by the mid-1970s. Local school boards closed one black high school after another, bringing to an end one of the major public institutions in black life during the era of Jim Crow. As R. Charles Byers, professor of education at West Virginia State University, states, the fall of black high schools was a ‘‘heart-breaking’’ development.
African-Americans responded to declining economic and social conditions in a variety of ways. Many moved to the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast and Midwest, including Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Others moved to the nearby upper South and border cities such as Washington. Some moved as far west as California. Indicative of the rapid out-migration of West Virginia blacks, the African-American population dropped from a peak of 117,700 in 1940 to 65,000 in 1980, a decline from 6 percent to 3 percent of the total state population. Still, other West Virginia blacks remained behind and sought to make a living in the emerging new order.
Partly because of disappointment with integration, African-Americans in the Mountain State struggled to maintain black churches, fraternal orders, social clubs, civil rights and political organizations, and the black press. Formed in the 1950s, the West Virginia Beacon Journal replaced the McDowell Times as the preeminent organ of black public opinion in the state. In 1988, the First Baptist Church of Charleston hosted the First Annual Conference on West Virginia’s Black History. Spearheaded by the Alliance for the Collection, Preservation, and Dissemination of West Virginia’s Black History, the conference continued into the next decade, featuring a variety of papers, speeches, and comments on the state’s black heritage and committed to African-American institutions, values, and beliefs.
This Article was written by Joe William Trotter Jr.
Last Revised on October 19, 2010
Corbin, David A. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Lewis, Ronald L. Black Coal Miners in America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.
Posey, Thomas E. The Negro Citizen of West Virginia. Institute: Press of West Virginia State College, 1934.