A Brief History of African Americans in West Virginia

Compiled by the West Virginia State Archives

In 1619, a Dutch trader brought the first 20 African Americans to the colony of Virginia to be used as slaves. Each year, more and more slaves arrived to serve the growing colonial population. By 1700, the settlement of eastern Virginia and its slave population had grown immeasurably. To keep slaves from revolting against the system, owners became increasingly brutal.

Wealthier pioneers who were expanding their landholdings occasionally brought slaves into western Virginia. Although most western Virginians were engaged in farming and livestock operations too small to support slaves, parts of the region used slave labor. The South Branch, Greenbrier, Monongahela, and Kanawha valleys consisted of larger farms of tobacco and other cash crops which used slaves. In 1860, there were 490,308 slaves (approximately 30 percent of the total population) in eastern Virginia belong to 48,308 slaveholders, averaging over ten slaves per owner. In western Virginia (including Eastern Panhandle counties), 18,451 slaves (4 percent of the total population) belonged to 3,820 slaveholders, or less than 6 slaves per owner. It is important to note that in both regions most slaveholders owned fewer than five slaves. Substantial free black populations also developed in areas where slavery was common. In 1732, the Johnson family crossed the Potomac, and became the first family of "free blacks" to settle in Jefferson County.

By 1800, laws already forbid teaching slaves to read or write. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Virginia General Assembly enacted measures prohibiting the education of the increasing free black population. Slaves were forbidden to hold their own church meetings, but they were instructed by white ministers who emphasized the slaves' Christian duty to be loyal to their masters. Secret religious ceremonies became a centerpoint of slave society and today, churches remain among the strongest bonds of black communities.

Most slaves from present-day West Virginia lived in the Eastern Panhandle counties, but a substantial slave population existed in the Kanawha Valley. Due to the decline of plantation agriculture in the 1800s, slavery was no longer as profitable in the east and slaves were frequently hired out or sold. The salt industry was driven by poor white transients and slave labor, often leased from eastern Virginia. This was the first significant introduction of slavery into western Virginia because salt was the first major industry to develop. In fact, by the 1800s, slave labor was rarely used in areas that did not rely heavily upon industry. Similarly, industrialization in the late 1800s and early 1900s would later bring many transient African Americans into the state.

Of the slaves in the Kanawha Valley, half were owned or hired by salt firms. Forty percent of these slaves were used to mine coal for the salt works because they could be hired from their owners for much lower wages than white laborers demanded. These slaves were usually leased and insured rather than bought due to the risk of death or injury in the coal mines.

The Abolitionist Movement

The failure of slavery to become as vital and profitable to the western Virginia economy led many to the opinion that the existence of slavery actually harmed the economy and discouraged immigrants from settling in the region. In 1831, this issue was brought to the forefront following Nat Turner's raid, in which sixty-one whites were killed in Southhampton County, Virginia. That same year, William Lloyd Garrison first printed his newspaper, The Liberator, marking the beginning of an organized national movement to end slavery, called abolitionism.

Some abolitionists disapproved of slavery on a moral basis. Others, including prominent western Virginia political leaders, supported abolitionism because they felt slaves were performing jobs which white laborers should be paid to do. Washington College President Henry Ruffner, the son of Kanawha Valley salt industry pioneer David Ruffner and a slaveholder himself, wanted to end slavery in trans-Allegheny Virginia in order to provide more paying jobs for white workers. He outlined this theory in an address delivered to the Franklin Society in Lexington, Virginia, in 1847. His speech, later printed in pamphlets and distributed nationally, stated that slavery kept white laborers from moving into the Kanawha Valley. To prove this theory, Massachusetts abolitionist Eli Thayer established an industrial town at Ceredo in Wayne County, beginning in 1857. The laborers, white New England emigrants, were all paid for their work. The experiment failed when some of the investors were unable to contribute and a national economic depression restricted the availability of additional money.

The nation's most famous abolitionist came to western Virginia in 1859. John Brown and a group of raiders wanted to establish a colony for runaway slaves in the mountains of western Maryland as an outpost for those escaping from the South. Brown needed a large supply of weapons to secure such a colony. On October 16, 1859, he and his men seized the U.S. armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. When area slaves did not revolt against their masters as Brown had hoped, the plan fell apart. The raiders were trapped in a small engine house and captured two days later by U.S. Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee. Ironically, the first casualty of the raid was a free black baggage handler, Heyward Shepherd, who was shot when he confronted the raiders. Brown was hanged for treason in Charles Town on December 2, after declaring slavery would not be abolished without great bloodshed.

The Civil War, Statehood, and the End of Slavery

The Civil War and the secession of Virginia from the Union allowed pro-union western Virginians the opportunity to form their own state. First, they created a government of Virginia loyal to the United States, called the Restored, or Reorganized, Government of Virginia. The state of West Virginia came into existence on June 20, 1863, only after the heated debate concerning the issue of slavery was resolved.

Slavery was the most controversial subject in the debate about the new state constitution. Delegate Gordon Battelle proposed the gradual emancipation of slaves already in the state and freedom to all children born to slaves after July 4, 1865. Although some delegates opposed Battelle's position, they knew they could not create a pro-slavery document and gain approval for statehood from Congress. Following much debate and compromise, the provision written into the constitution banned the introduction of slaves or free African Americans into the state of West Virginia, but it did not address the issue of immediate or gradual emancipation.

When Congress addressed the West Virginia statehood bill, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner demanded an emancipation clause to prevent the creation of another slave state. Restored Government Senator John S. Carlile wanted a statewide election to decide the issue. Finally, a compromise between Restored Government Senator Waitman T. Willey and Committee on Territories Chairman Benjamin Wade of Ohio determined that all children born to slaves after July 4, 1863, would be free, while slaves under the age of ten would be freed at the age of twenty-one and those between ten and twenty-one years of age would gain their freedom at the age of twenty-five. The Willey Amendment prohibited some slavery but did not end the ownership of slaves entirely. Therefore, West Virginia became the last slave state to enter the union. In February 1865, Governor Arthur I. Boreman signed an act officially freeing all slaves.

When the Civil War ended, West Virginia pro-union Republicans inflicted harsh penalties on residents who had been loyal to the Confederacy. Among other restrictions, former Confederates were forbidden from voting or holding public office. In response, the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and other secret organizations advertised in newspapers to gain members during the late 1860s. The societies commonly directed their vengeance at African Americans, who were receiving voting rights at the same time former Confederates were losing their rights.

In the 1868 election for governor, Republican William E. Stevenson defeated Democrat Johnson N. Camden by only a narrow margin, indicating the state's voters were becoming displeased with the Radical Republican policies. On March 23, 1869, the legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting the right to vote to African-American men. Even the Radical Republican legislature was split over the Fifteenth Amendment and it passed by narrow margins. Racist citizens could not understand why over 2,800 African Americans had the right to vote while an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 white residents did not. In December 1869, violence broke out between white and African-American residents of Malden in Kanawha County.

In 1870, a Democrat, John J. Jacob, was elected governor. The following year, a Democratic legislature adopted the Flick Amendment, granting former Confederates the right to vote. They also demanded the re-writing of the state constitution, which discriminated against former Confederates. Like the original constitution, the 1872 constitution forbid the teaching of white and black students in the same school. Vengeful Democrats enacted numerous laws, known as Jim Crow laws, which discriminated against African Americans. The courts became increasingly tolerant of the brutal murders, or lynchings, of blacks. Democrats remained in power until almost 1900.


The new state of West Virginia placed a greater emphasis on funding white schools than it did black schools. The African- American community took it upon itself to create the first schools in the state for blacks. In 1862, a year before the state's creation, a black school was opened in Parkersburg. In 1866, the state agreed to take over the Sumner School, making it the first publicly financed black school in the entire South. Black schools sprang up in other towns, including Charleston, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Grafton, Keyser, Lewisburg, Malden, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Piedmont, Point Pleasant, Ronceverte, Shepherdstown, Union, Weston, Wheeling, and White Sulphur Springs. There was a growing need for individuals to teach the increasing number of black students. Storer College, established at Harpers Ferry in 1867, was comprised of two components, a grammar school and a normal school for the training of teachers. In the 1890s, the state created two additional black normal schools, West Virginia Colored Institute (later West Virginia State College) and Bluefield Colored Institute (later Bluefield State College).

Population Growth

Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the late 1860s and early 1870s brought many African-American laborers into southern West Virginia. An estimated 1,000 blacks helped dig the C&O tunnel at Talcott in present-day Summers County. One of these laborers was supposedly John Henry, remembered in folk tradition. New steam-powered machines were considered by many to be more efficient than human labor. Legend has it John Henry defeated one of these machines in a digging competition at the Big Bend Tunnel at Talcott.

The C&O railroad accelerated the development of southern West Virginia's coal industry in the 1870s, creating more jobs and attracting more blacks to the state. The Norfolk and Western Railroad did the same for the southwestern part of the state. McDowell County experienced an influx of migrant laborers, increasing its black population from 0.1 percent in 1880 to 30.7 percent in 1910. During the same time, the black population of the entire state increased from 17,000 in 1870, to 64,100 in 1910, and reached a high of nearly 115,000 in 1930.

The Progressive Movement

By 1900, voters had elected a state government controlled by Progressive Republicans, who sought to reform the way government took care of its people. They established a number of public institutions to serve the growing black population. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the legislature created an orphanage, a home for the aged and infirmed, a tuberculosis sanitarium, industrial homes for boys and girls, a deaf and blind school, and an insane asylum, all for African Americans. Previously, blacks had been forced to travel to other states to receive these services despite the fact the same services were available in West Virginia for whites.

The source of employment for many African Americans, the coal industry, suffered severe economic problems following World War I. It received another blow during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many blacks lost their jobs and left the state. Additional jobs were lost as the coal industry replaced miners with machines at an increasing rate. Between 1930 and 1980, the number of black coal miners fell from over 20,000 to less than 1,500.


The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education forced West Virginia to integrate its public schools and institutions. Desegregation in some regions proceeded quickly and peacefully while it took a number of lawsuits to integrate the schools of southern West Virginia. The school systems of Hampshire, Hardy, and Jefferson counties were the last with black students to desegregate. While integration had many positive effects, it also eliminated a significant element of black society. African-American schools had given blacks a sense of identity in their communities. After the Brown decision, many African Americans chose to keep their children in all-black schools, some of which remained open until the late 1960s.

The integration of schools and state-operated institutions sparked a national civil rights movement to desegregate the rest of society. In 1958, the West Virginia's first chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was formed in Charleston and began boycotts of the Woolworth, Kresge, and Newberry five-and-ten-cent stores which refused to serve African Americans at their lunch counters. The following month, the stores integrated. CORE targeted other cities, including Bluefield and Huntington. Boycotts led to the integration of restaurants, department stores, and movie theaters, although some businesses remained segregated until the late 1960s. In 1961, 50 percent of restaurants, 70 percent of hotels and motels, and 85 percent of pools in the state still discriminated against African Americans.


West Virginia's coal industry experienced a rebirth during the national energy crisis of the early 1970s and employment increased. However, the industry suffered through a severe recession beginning in the late seventies and unemployment reached all-time highs. Blacks again left the state in dramatic numbers. Today, African Americans represent just over 3 percent of West Virginia's total population.

African Americans

West Virginia Archives and History