Celebrate Black History Month: Black Education in West Virginia

Historical marker for Coketon Colored School in Thomas.

BUCKHANNON — In celebration of Black History Month, Dr. Tamara Denmark Bailey continues to share a brief history of the African-American experience in West Virginia, from secession to integration. This third entry of her series addresses the education experience for African-Americans in West Virginia.

The first two entries about the African-American Experience in West Virginia made the case that our great state was on a divergent path from the rest of the South due to the extension of the franchise and access to education. By 1900, West Virginia led the South in black education. The national average for black student enrollment hovered just above 30%, yet West Virginia’s enrollment was 61.5%. Even more remarkable was that West Virginia’s black enrollment was only 5.2% below the rate for whites in the state. The reasons for high enrollment were due to a variety of factors, including support from state leadership and local boards of education, statutes passed by the state legislature reducing enrollment requirements, ongoing black community involvement in the founding and administration of schools, and the settlement of black families in coal and rail hubs. One of the most significant accomplishments for black education would come with the court case, Williams v. Board of Education of Fairfax Dist., 45 W.Va. in 1898.

West Virginia State Superintendent’s Reports from the late 19th century reveal that black and white teachers were paid on the same scale as their white counterparts. Unfortunately, some local Boards of Education shortened the school year for black students to marginalize them and pay their teachers less. Twenty-six-year-old Carrie Williams was the victim of this ploy. In 1892, her district Board of Education in Tucker County set the term for her school, Coketon Colored School, at five months. However, that same board set the term for the white school at eight months. Her lawyer advised Williams to teach the entire eight months. They sued for the additional $120 when she was not compensated for her work. The case made it to the West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals, which ruled in Williams’ favor.  From 1898 on, black and white teachers would be paid equally, which profoundly impacted black education for the next 56 years.

The equal pay phenomenon brought teachers from all directions to West Virginia due to discriminatory pay policies in their home states. Many of these teachers arrived with advanced degrees, which resulted in higher salaries than white teachers because of the equal pay foundation and graduated pay scale. Data from the West Virginia State Superintendent Reports reveal that black teachers earned roughly $12 to $35 more a year between 1900 and 1920 and upwards of $450 per year by 1925. The quality of these teachers trickled down to the curriculum the students were learning. However, there were numerous limitations with the classrooms, textbooks, lab equipment, and technology, plus the growing population called for the building of new schools.

To address inequities and oversee black schools, the State Superintendent of Schools created a Negro Board of Education and appointed a Negro School Supervisor. Their reports led to the opening of schools throughout the state, additional equipment for labs, the building of school libraries, and an enhanced curriculum. High Schools increased from five in 1912 to 32 in 1932. Black high schools’ teaching staff also increased from no full-time teachers in 1914 to 178 full-time and 60 part-time teachers in high schools and 29 full-time and 10 part-time teachers in junior high schools. Additionally, all 178 full-time high school teachers were graduates of accredited colleges with full certification in their fields. While a good bit of the South focused on vocational education, black students in West Virginia experienced vocational and secondary curricula to prepare their students for employment or college.

By 1942, enrollment in black high schools increased by 258 percent from 1933. The number of teachers in high schools nearly doubled to 324 teachers in 1942. By 1951, on the eve of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ordered the desegregation of schools, only seven teachers lacked degrees, but 109 had earned Master of Arts degrees. One had earned a Doctorate of Education degree. The teachers, attracted to West Virginia’s salaries, hailed from some of the finest institutions in the East. For instance, Riverside School in Elkins could boast of teachers and principals from Columbia University, Lincoln University, Fisk University, Xavier University, Ohio University, University of Pennsylvania, and Storer College, Bluefield College, and West Virginia State.

On the surface, it may seem like the black educational experience in West Virginia was commendable. After all, Katherine Johnson (whom many of us know from the film Hidden Figures), was a product of this environment. Johnson’s math professor, William Schieffelin Claytor was the third African-American in the United States to earn a Ph. D. in mathematics and he chose to teach at West Virginia State after completing his dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. Johnson, of course, went on to work at NASA and conducted trajectory analysis for our first human spaceflight in 1961 with Alan Shepard. She also helped coordinate John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1961. Other success stories are too numerous to detail here, but Buckhannon has their own notable heroine from segregated schooling. Florence Warfield, a graduate of Victoria School received an education that allowed her to become the second African-American to graduate from West Virginia Wesleyan College.

These stories remind us that it was the stellar teaching, curious students, and supportive communities that created successful black schools because they lacked the necessary classrooms, equipment, and supplies to succeed otherwise. For example, only 9% of black high schools and 0% of black junior highs had inter-communication systems installed compared to 20% in white high schools and 5% in white junior high schools. While white high schools had motion picture and/or film strip projectors in the vast majority of their schools, less than half of the black high schools could experience that same perk. Additionally, 17 of the 33 high schools lacked auditoriums and gymnasiums. This imbalance would be addressed at the Supreme Court in 1954, but only after years of training and documentation by the NAACP to prove segregation was inherently unequal. Our final installment will address this phenomenon. We will also learn how West Virginia led the South during the integration years.

Research for this entry was conducted at the WVU’s Appalachian Collection and the George R. Farmer Jr. Law Library, the West Virginia Archives, as well as articles from local newspapers, NASA, and West Virginia State University.



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