My 85-year-old dad agreed to spit in a vial to show his ethnic DNA results. Anyone who knows my father or others raised during the Great Depression in West Virginia can imagine that convincing him to do so wasn’t easy. We sent his vial away as well as one of my sister’s saliva, and waited. After six long weeks, the results were posted.
My sister’s results showed that she is 62 percent Western European, 19 percent Irish, 9 percent Scandinavian. My dad’s DNA results showed that his lineage is 73 percent British, 8 percent Scandinavian, 5 percent western European. Then, my mom wanted to see her results. She spit in a vial; we sent it off and waited to discover that she is 33 percent Irish, 26 percent Western European, 16 percent Scandinavian, 13 percent British, and 12 percent Italian and Greek.
All of this is new science, complete with margins of error. Apparently, ethnic DNA attaches randomly, somewhat like eye color and hair color. For example, my sister’s results may show that she is 62 percent Western European and mine may show that I am only 20 percent Western European, even though we have the same parents. Confusing, I know.
My father’s family, the Howards, hail from Kentucky. According to a genealogy service, Kentucky lured English, German, and Scots-Irish immigrants west looking for land. Although we don’t know what brought my grandfather, Archie (Art) Howard, from Kentucky to West Virgina, we believe it was for love. My grandfather married my grandmother, Floy DeBarr, in Ohio, and her family was from Upshur County. He opened a business many in the area may remember, called The Beer Garden or “Howard’s Place.”
As for my mom’s family’s story per the genealogy site, when the Ohio River Valley opened for settlement after the Revolutionary War, English, German, Scots, and Scots-Irish farmers moved to the frontier. After a series of brutal wars with native tribes, they pushed west into the prairies. Settlers planted corn and turned the land into what became known as the “Corn Belt.” My mom’s family, the Dillys, Wilfongs and Sharps, eventually landed in Pocahontas County where they put down stakes, worked the land and helped settle the area.
Immigration means simply the action of coming to live permanently in a foreign country. America’s diversity is largely created by immigrants; this diversity makes us stronger and more connected as a nation. West Virginia is no different. Our non-native ancestors came from somewhere else.
The Pangaea Theory is the theory that the land was once one large mass called a supercontinent, but that this ancient supercontinent, Pangaea, split apart 200 million years ago because of movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates and mantle convection. By this theory, we all originated from the same race and evolved. Some scientists believe that Homo sapiens originated in either Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Over thousands of years, humans moved from Africa north to Europe, some crossing into the Americas. This would mean we all have some traces of African, Middle Eastern or Asian descent. Perhaps science will be able to show this one day through improved cultural DNA testing.
The West Virginia Encyclopedia says the first inhabitants of West Virginia descended from ‘‘Old Mongoloid’’ stock, or eastern Asians, who crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska approximately 40,000 years ago. Over the centuries, Native Americans evolved through some major cultural stages. Later, during the Colonial era, many sailed across the Atlantic to flee hunger and religious persecution. English, Scots-Irish, German, Italian, Dutch, French and Spanish people sought refuge in America.
An average of 2,000-plus immigrants and refugees per day came to America from the 1860s to the 1920s. Most were desperately poor, bringing little more with them than the clothes on their backs. A number of those who survived made their way to West Virginia, the first being the Scots-Irish, Protestants who had fled the conflict between the Anglican English and Irish Catholic Churches.
By 1863, when West Virginia became a state, 380,000 immigrants and refugees had made their way to West Virginia. Joseph Hubert was named the first commissioner of immigration in West Virginia, and he is the designer of the Great Seal of West Virginia. DeBarr was, himself, an immigrant, who came to the United States from France. Immigrants came to West Virginia to work on the railroads, in the timber industry, as ironworkers, in factories and to start businesses: Italians, Poles, Serbs, Turks, Germans, Swiss, English and Belgians. Most immigrants came to West Virginia for work.
The largest recruiter of immigrant labor was, of course, the coal industry. Interestingly, our first commissioner of immigration, DeBarr, did not accept a salary. The second, John Nugent, did. His salary was paid for by the coal industry.
Nugent tripled the West Virginia coal mine labor force with about 40 percent whites, 20 percent African Americans, coming from our southern states mostly; the remaining 40 percent came from Italy, Hungry, Poland, Austria, Russia and others. Knowing little English and confused by the unfamiliar, many new immigrants were whisked away to West Virginia by coal operators, who promised to build them homes, stores, schools and churches. The worst were “coal camps” where the housing provided was little more than a shack.
Below ground were some of the worst working conditions in America. This would lead to the West Virginia Coal Wars, the climax of which occurred at the Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County. Mary Harris, aka “Mother Jones,” rallied miners to unionize for better wages and working conditions. Mountaineer families from the nearby hollows, African Americans from the Deep South, and immigrants from places like Hungary and Italy all came together to fight for their right to unionize and for their basic constitutional rights, according to the Mine Wars Museum.
Martial law was declared in the summer of 1921. Sid Hatfield lost his post as Chief of Police in Matewan, but was elected Constable for Magnolia District. He was unarmed and accompanied by his wife, Jessie, when he arrived in Welch on August 1, 1921 for trial for his alleged involvement in other mining-related disturbances. As they began to climb the steps to the courthouse, agents from Baldwin-Felts, a privately owned detective agency, described as “mine guard thugs,” gunned him and another young man down. Sid Hatfield died almost instantly from several chest wounds. Although the killers were charged, none was ever convicted of the murders. Hatfield was buried a W.Va. hero.
Outrage at their murder fueled the miners’ anger and culminated in the battle of Blair Mountain. In 1921, they marched from Marmet, near Charleston, to Blair Mountain, in Logan County, a distance of about 50 miles. The miners fought the coal company for five days. It was the largest insurrection in the United States since the Civil War.
The miners’ uniforms included red bandanas, which is where we get the term, “redneck.” Having a red neck meant you stood with coal miners and their families. Some people look at that phase as a derogatory slur; I claim it as a badge of honor. Call me a “redneck” any day.
Despite all this, miners continued mining, working side-by-side underground. Nevertheless, housing was completely segregated, and so immigrants mostly kept to themselves in tight-knit immigrant communities. As each generation passed, immigrants assimilated more into “American” life, with much of their music, food, folklore, language and customs lost in the process.
Assimilation also had its benefits. Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro invented the pepperoni roll. It was a practical lunch for Fairmont’s miners, who needed food that was portable, sturdy and long-lasting. Argiro, an Italian immigrant and former miner, noticed many of his co-workers eating a piece of pepperoni with a piece of bread. He began baking rolls with pepperoni slices inside in 1927 at the County Club Bakery in Fairmont.
Every West Virginian loves a good pepperoni roll. Argiro gave us that, along with a dose of innovation. He passed the recipe on to his son, Frank “Cheech” Argiro who owned the bakery until 1997. The bakery still exists today.
Despite the good that came, more disaster would follow in mine disasters such as the one at Buffalo Creek. On Feb. 26, 1972, nearly 132 million gallons of water and coal waste rushed from Buffalo Mining Company’s slurry impoundments through Buffalo Creek Hollow, in Logan County. The flood coursed through 16 coal-mining settlements along the creek where hundreds of families lived. In an instant, their lives were washed away.
Of 5,000, 125 were killed, 1,121 injured, and more than 4,000 were left homeless. Then-Governor Arch Moore appointed an investigator. When the investigator arrived weeks later, they were still pulling people out of the sludge. Native West Virginians and immigrants and their families died together that day, as they would in many more such disasters in West Virginia.
Now, unfortunately, West Virginia suffers from the opposite issue: migration — we are leaving by droves. The population loss has been so great that the state’s congressional seats were cut from five to four between 1970 and 1990. West Virginia lost more than 6,100 people between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015, according to the 2015 population estimates put out by the U.S. Census Bureau. If we don’t increase population drastically by 2020, we will lose another congressional seat – leaving us with only two representatives for 3 districts, or perhaps we will lose a district. We should be thankful for those immigrating here.
According to the American Immigration Council, immigrants currently make up 1.4 percent of West Virginia’s population, and nearly half are naturalized U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote. Immigrants contribute to West Virginia’s economy as workers, but also pay millions of dollars in taxes. Latest figures show that Latinos and Asians wield $1.3 billion in consumer purchasing power, and the businesses they own had sales of $722.8 million and employed more than 5,600 people.
If, as many favor, all unauthorized immigrants (0.2 percent) were removed from West Virginia, we would lose $26.6 million, according to a report by the Perryman Group. Were unauthorized immigrants in West Virginia to have lawful permanent residence, they would pay $5.5 million in state and local taxes.
We should pay tribute to our immigrants and our own immigrant heritage with public festivals, by researching our own lineage and celebrating our family heritage, and by honoring and standing with immigrants. To ban immigrants and refugees and cry for deportation and wall building is to denigrate our own identity as a country, not to mention it is cruel and inhumane, as well as a poor economic strategy for our struggling economy.
I am thankful that when my Irish, French, German, Scandinavian, British and Italian ancestors needed to take refuge in America, they were welcomed. Perhaps we should focus less on excluding people and more on bringing people into our state and keeping them here. Frankly, we need all the help we can get.
I invite you to tell your story at Iamanimmigrant.com.