West Virginia’s history of race relations is an unusual one. Born in the Civil War, the state had abolished slavery in its 1863 constitution as a condition of admission into the Union. Unlike states farther south, in West Virginia African-Americans never lost the right to vote during the repressive ‘‘Jim Crow’’ days following Reconstruction, and the state was largely spared the wave of lynchings that swept much of the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In some places, especially the southern West Virginia coalfields, blacks attained political clout by the end of the 19th century, electing members of the legislature and holding many local offices. Nonetheless, in public education and in key areas of public accommodation West Virginians were segregated by race during most of the state’s history.
This was the situation on May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. This landmark ruling overturned an earlier case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the court had declared that ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities did not violate the 14th Amendment.
Seventeen states, including West Virginia, had dual schools systems in 1954. Following the Brown ruling, Governor William Marland pledged to obey the edict and foresaw no serious difficulty in integrating West Virginia schools. State Superintendent of Schools W. W. Trent saw the adjustment as largely administrative. State Negro Schools Supervisor J. W. Robinson expressed agreement with the ruling, believing that the decision would increase opportunities for black teachers. At the time of the decision there were 420,000 white and 26,000 African-American students attending school in West Virginia.
Four other states and the District of Columbia also announced that they would promptly comply with the court ruling. The Brown v. Board ruling was not accompanied by a plan or recommendation for implementation. This led to many states interpreting the decision so as to delay integration. Some, including Georgia and South Carolina, vigorously resisted.
While the response to Brown v. Board was generally positive in West Virginia, there were concerns and delays in some areas. Those counties closer to the Virginia border, including the Eastern Panhandle and the southern region of the state, were slower in accepting the ruling.
For example, Greenbrier County took an approach that delayed integration. On September 16, 1954, the Greenbrier Independent newspaper announced at the beginning of the school year that segregation was to continue. The Greenbrier board of education had decided to return to segregated schools after a week’s trial at integration. Three hundred students from White Sulphur Springs High School had protested integration by refusing to attend school. The board ordered black students to return to the schools they had attended during the 1953–54 school year.
In Boone County, 11 students complained about the integration of Scott High School in the county seat of Madison. Some parents in Barbour County protested and called for a gradual approach. Taylor County suggested a ‘‘right of choice’’ plan, while Mercer, Berkeley, and Mineral wanted to wait until the Supreme Court devised a plan for implementation. A small protest took place in Marion County when mothers picketed the Annabelle School near Fairmont. The protest was curtailed when a local judge threatened to issue an injunction. Monongalia County, like most counties in West Virginia, responded to the decision favorably. The school board stated on July 7, 1954, that ‘‘all Negro pupils will be admitted and integrated this school year in the school located within their respective residential areas.’’
On October 15, 1954, the West Virginia Association of Teachers (white) and the West Virginia State Teachers Association (black) merged to form the West Virginia Education Association. West Virginia Boys State also changed its policy to include all representatives from the 55 counties regardless of race, creed, or color.
By the end of the 1956–57 school year, 20 of 55 counties in West Virginia were considered fully desegregated and 21 partially, with the Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley, Hampshire, and Jefferson still segregated. Eleven counties reported having no black students. At the beginning of that school year an antiintegration demonstration was held in Mercer County, but the board refused to yield and the demonstrations eventually ceased. The following year the attempted integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas captured the national headlines. McDowell County experienced a protest at Welch High School with some protesters carrying ‘‘We Support Little Rock’’ signs. Another demonstration took place in Mercer County, but by mid-October schools in both Mercer and McDowell were operating without incident.
The 1958–59 school year was interrupted by a school bombing at Osage, near Morgantown. Bomb threats took place in Oak Hill, Point Pleasant, Charleston, and Beckley. The legislature acted quickly, making bomb threats a felony and requiring schools to make up lost days due to bomb threats.
As the public schools were integrated, West Virginia colleges moved in the same direction. State Attorney General John G. Fox ruled that the federal mandate should be applied to higher education. Soon after his ruling, the state Board of Education, which also governed higher education at the time, adopted a policy of non-segregation, allowing the admission of any qualified student to any state college or university. By the 1955–56 school year, with the exception of Glenville State, all institutions of higher learning in West Virginia had enrolled African-American students. Ironically, some of the greatest changes came at the traditionally black institutions, West Virginia State College (now University) and Bluefield State. Both grew with the admission of white students and eventually had white majorities. An unfortunate consequence of the Brown decision was the closing of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, a private institution and the state’s oldest black college, due to budget concerns and the integration of other colleges.
The Brown decision not only influenced public schools and higher education, but also housing, employment, voting, and public accommodations. African-Americans were concerned about discrimination in hiring practices, housing, and public accommodations. Groups such as the Charleston United Church Women and later the West Virginia Human Rights Commission fought to open doors previously closed. One of the first demonstrations against segregated seating practices took place in March 1960 when a group of Bluefield State College students picketed two movie theaters in Bluefield. They also attacked segregated lunch counters at Kresge and Woolworth stores with limited success.
A significant force in the move toward equality of access and opportunity was the creation of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission in 1961. The Commission established 35 local community relations commissions to share information and discuss issues related to equality and racism. At the time of its creation many hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and pools refused to admit African-Americans. By 1966, the commission reported that such ‘‘blatant racial discrimination’’ was over. Unlike other Southern states, West Virginia had moved to integrate school and public facilities prior to the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The schools in West Virginia were considered fully desegregated by 1964.
The struggle for equality of opportunity in West Virginia was not perfect and not without negative consequences. The closing of local African-American schools resulted in a loss of community identity in many black communities. Some black teachers lost their jobs and others were placed in predominantly white schools.
This Article was written by Sam Stack
Southern School News. Nashville, TN: Southern Education Reporting Service, 1954-1965.
Smith, Douglas. In Quest of Equality: The West Virginia Experience. West Virginia History, (Apr. 1978).
Johnson, Paul. "Integration in West Virginia Since 1954." M.A. thesis, West Virginia University, 1959.