Celebrate Black History Month: The African-American experience after Reconstruction

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 second entry of her series focuses on the period after Reconstruction: Industrialization, Migration, and Politics.

Last week, we learned how the new state of West Virginia set itself apart from its southern counterparts with legislation that guaranteed the franchise for all men and established schools for all students. This meant black and white men could vote, and black and white children (and adults up to age 21) could attend school. No doubt, a unique brand of West Virginia politics was at the center of this progress.

During the 1870s, much of the South reversed most civil rights extended to African-Americans as Democrats returned to power. These Democrats earned the nickname “Redeemers” due to their desire to return to the social stratification of the past. In contrast, West Virginia’s leading Democrats tended to hold Bourbon philosophies that ushered in progressive politics amenable to industrialization. Under their leadership, West Virginia began to focus on the coal, rail, and timber industries. These contrasting experiences created what historians call a push and pull scenario throughout the South. 

Since the end of the Civil War, the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia ushered in a series of laws known as Black Codes. These laws ensured that African-Americans would remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy of the United States. After the presidential election of 1876, these laws (eventually known as Jim Crow laws) were largely unchecked by the national government, despite the guarantees of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. These laws impacted where black folks could work, how much they could be paid, where they could live, where they could travel, where they could move, drink, and eat in public places, and how they could learn. The worst of these laws placed men, women and children into forced labor due to homelessness, misdemeanor violations, and orphan status.  Mind you, many African-Americans were without homes, and most enslaved children were separated from their parents due to buying and selling of their families during slavery, thus making adults and children easy prey for people seeking unpaid labor.

There was also a surge in lynchings where white men served as judge, jury and executioner, arbitrarily killing black people at will. Without the right to vote or to serve on juries, African-Americans had little legal recourse as Jim Crow laws stripped away their basic fundamental human rights. In the beginning, these circumstances pushed African-Americans out of the South in a slow and uncoordinated manner. However, the numbers became so prolific in the 20th century that it became known as the Great Migration. The “push” of Jim Crow led to a mass exodus of 6 million African-Americans from the South. Some of those migrants found a home in West Virginia.

West Virginia’s coal mines, rail, and timber industries, as well as a better quality of life, served as the “pull” for many southern African-Americans who yearned for true freedom. Carnegie Mellon University historian Joe William Trotter determined that African-Americans in West Virginia experienced fewer incidents of “mob violence, fewer debilitating forms of labor exploitation, and since they retained the franchise, fewer constraints on their exercise of political power.” Between 1870 and the early 20th century, Trotter found that coalfields opened in Kanawha, Fayette, Boone, Raleigh, Wyoming, McDowell, Mercer, Logan, and Mercer counties.  Where there was coal, there were railways.

Company-owned towns dominated a good bit of West Virginia life for decades. Initially, these towns were not segregated, but Jim Crow eventually infiltrated these towns leading to separate white and black sections. African-Americans created their own migration networks. Two of these migrants, in particular, changed the trajectory of their children’s lives when they moved to West Virginia to work in the coal and rail industries. Those children were Booker T. Washington, the future president of Tuskegee College and advisor on Black progress to President Theodore Roosevelt, and Carter G. Woodson, prominent educator, historian, and founder of Negro History Week (which would evolve into the African-American History Month we celebrate today). 

Due to segregation throughout West Virginia, most aspects of African-American lives were conducted separately from whites. These segregated hubs invited black professionals such as lawyers, ministers, clergymen, journalists, physicians, nurses and educators to establish roots in West Virginia’s growing black communities. Black-owned businesses in the form of hotels, restaurants and theaters cropped up to serve the people living and visiting these segregated communities.

Since West Virginia’s enumeration laws determined the opening of schools, the growing black population resulted in an increase in the number of schools throughout the state, particularly in the southern region. Schools not only created a safe haven and learning space for children, but it also opened opportunities for teachers, support staff, and administrators. Since schools were segregated, “Negro” schools had African-American employees, which allowed more adults to migrate to here. In 1900, 27 counties housed black schools. By 1904, 33 counties operated 207 schools.   

The racial solidarity of these black communities and political access led to a focus on education. Soon, the state opened two colleges. West Virginia Colored Collegiate Institute and Bluefield Colored Collegiate Institute (known as West Virginia State University and Bluefield State College today) opened at the close of the 19th century to suit the needs of families in the burgeoning middle class. Before long, West Virginia would attract some of the best-educated teachers and professors to teach in these schools and colleges.

Next week, we will learn how these black schools attracted some of the best faculty in the Eastern region of the U.S.  That talent trickled down to the students, who found some peace and prosperity in their lives, despite the debilitating effects of segregation.

This research was collected from some of Dr. Bailey’s favorite historians on West Virginia History: Otis Rice, Stephen Brown, Donald Rice, John Edmund Stealey, III, Carter G. Woodson, Byrd Prillerman, Cicero Fain IV, and Joe William Trotter. Additionally, research by journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste, contributed to this entry.



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