· African American · Carpatho-Russian · Irish · Italian · Jewish · Middle Eastern · Native American · Spanish ·
The New River/Greenbrier Valley region represents a fairly large portion of the state, encompassing eight counties: Raleigh, Fayette, Mercer, Summers, Greenbrier, Monroe, Wyoming, and McDowell. More than 315,000 individuals live in the New River/Greenbrier Valley region. Approximately a quarter of the population lives in Raleigh County; Mercer County has the second largest population, while Monroe and Summers currently have the lowest populations. The larger communities in the area include Oak Hill, Lewisburg, Beckley, Bluefield, and Princeton. Largely due to the high number of historic mining towns, this region is ethnically very diverse. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were major mining operations in Mercer, McDowell, Wyoming, Raleigh, and Fayette counties, giving rise to ethnically diverse towns like Gary, Kimball, and Welch. In the period from approximately 1890 to 1920, these mining communities saw the immigration of huge numbers of Europeans from Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, and other nations, as well as African Americans from other parts of the United States including Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Throughout the region, one can find remnants of most of these ethnic communities. In some areas, there are still active communities. In more recent years, professional careers have brought new nationalities and ethnic groups, in particular Middle Eastern and Asian Indian in health care professions. The metropolitan regions in Fayette, Raleigh, and Mercer counties are the main locations of contemporary ethnic communities.
In addition to the communities discussed in the following section, the New River/Greenbrier Valley region is home to numerous other ethnic groups for whom we currently have no contact. This region has the significant populations of several other ethnic groups, including Hispanic, Hungarian, and Welsh. At one time, there were Greek communities in the mining towns like in Welch and Gary; a small contemporary Greek community can be found in Bluefield. This region has a large population of people with Polish heritage. Several Asian nationalities are also present in smaller populations, including Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese.
In the New River/Greenbrier Valley region, there are approximately 20,000 African Americans, which represents approximately 36% of the population of African Americans in West Virginia. The larger communities are in Raleigh, McDowell, Mercer, and Fayette counties. The McDowell County community has a long history associated with railroading and mining in the late nineteenth century. McDowell had few blacks prior to 1860; by 1910, the black population represented 31% of the total population. The influx was due to coalfields, as African American miners and construction workers moved here to work in the coal mines. Today, the region is home to some of the largest and most culturally active African American communities in the state.
The New River/Greenbrier Valley region has one the state's largest populations of African Americans, second only to the Metro Valley. The community is very active and very diverse, including arts organizations and community action groups whose impact is felt throughout the state. Blacks have made significant contributions to the area's economy and society. The church is central to many of the communities in this region, serving as a focal point, a community gathering place, and a network. Gospel singing is also strong in this region. Numerous individuals in the area present African American heritage through performance and storytelling, and there have been excellent festivals over the years in this region, such as the legendary John Henry Festival, now held in Morgantown. Cultural involvement reaches all ages; for example, in Bluefield, there is an African American cultural club at a high school. The communities in this region have made major progress toward racial equality over the past 30 years; Bluefield State College was the site of a major civil rights demonstration in the early 1960's. The community pulls together in local groups such as C.W.I.G., the Community Watch and Improvement Group, in Bluefield. Bluefield Community Center is one of the oldest grassroots organizations in West Virginia; originally, it was the Carolina Community Home in the 1920's and '30's, a home for black women who had jobs as domestics and were working their way through college. Heritage and community activities are an important part of local celebrations for Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and Kwanzaa. This region is also home to the United African American Artists of West Virginia, the John Henry Center for Culture and History Exchange, the African American Arts & Heritage Academy, the Afro-Appalachian Performance Company, and the Harlem Renaissance Festival.
834 Bland St.,
Bluefield, WV 24701
Rev. W.H. Law
P.O. Box 1434
334 N. Eisenhower Drive
Beckley, WV 25802
1313 Wayne Street
Bluefield, WV 24701
In the early twentieth century, there were four Carpatho-Russian communities in the southwestern coalfields. Now there is only one. Carpatho-Russian immigrants came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to work in the mines in Raleigh, McDowell, and Fayette counties and elsewhere. An Orthodox Christian community was established by Carpatho-Russian and Greek miners around St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Elkhorn over 105 years ago, and this remained the center of heritage activities for the community until recently. The church serves a diverse community that, at one time, had over 200 patrons. Saint Mary's Orthodox Church recently moved to Bluefield, were there is a larger Orthodox community which also includes Greeks, Palestinians, Syrians, Macedonians, Serbians, and Romanians.
Although this community has a rich history in the area, there are currently no ethnic activities outside of family life and the church services, which represent mixed ethnic heritage. Saint Mary's Orthodox Church in Elkhorn is a beautiful structure in classic Orthodox design and architecture and has excellent traditional iconography.
Father Leonty Durkit
St. Mary's Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church
RR 2, Box 677
Bluefield, WV 24701
In the New River/Greenbrier Valley region, approximately 19% of the population has Irish ancestry. Mercer and Raleigh counties alone account for 9% of West Virginia's Irish population. Many Irish immigrated to America and ultimately into West Virginia around the middle of the nineteenth century, following the potato famine in Ireland. Two strong communities were established in the New River/Greenbrier Valley region: one in Raleigh County on what is now called Irish Mountain, and another in the Irish Tract of Fayette, Greenbrier, and Summers counties. The communities which once existed on Irish Mountain and the Irish Tract have now all but vanished, and the descendants of the local Irish have all but moved away. Some remain close by in towns like Hinton, Beckley, and Bluefield and return for annual activities at the old churches.
The community around Irish Mountain, near Beckley, was settled between the 1860's and the 1870's. The first Irish Catholic church in the area was St. Patrick's in Hinton, established in 1874 and from which were later established St. Coleman's on Irish Mountain and St. Kerren's at Spring Dale. Saint Coleman's Catholic Church remains a focal point for the local community.
At one time, the Irish Tract was the location of at least 18 Irish family farms. It is now home to only two families as the descendants now reside in various other places throughout the country.
Local Irish and some relatives from further afield gather for monthly church services at the rural Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Spring Dale, where descendants of the original Irish Tract settlers maintain an elaborate cemetery and hold an annual reunion.
In Beckley, there is an Annual Irish Heritage Festival, held each year on the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day. The event started in 1987 and includes a program of concerts, dance performance, and storytelling for kids. The event commences with a social night at a local pub, featuring live Irish music.
Irish Heritage Festival of West Virginia
P.O. Drawer AJ
Beckley, WV 25802
Patt Burnull (Irish Tract)
P.O. Box 77
Spring Dale, WV 25986
In the New River/Greenbrier Valley region, approximately 5,100 individuals claim Italian as their sole ancestry, and 7,000 individuals of multiple ancestry claim Italian as their primary heritage. Thus, approximately 4% of the population of the New River/Greenbrier Valley Region has Italian ancestry. Mercer and Raleigh counties account for approximately 8% of West Virginia's contemporary Italian American community. The Italian community in this region has roots in the coal mining boom of the late nineteenth century. Many of the small towns in this region used to have large Italian communities, and many retired couples from the older communities still live in the area. The town of Boomer in Fayette County, for example, used to have a large Italian community.
The Italian Heritage Festival, organized by the Sons of Italy Lodge, is one of the most prominent events celebrating Italian heritage in the Bluefield area. It is held close to Columbus Day in October and features Italian food, live Italian music, Italian heritage booths, and a variety of other types of music and dancers. The Sons of Italy is an organization in the area which serves as a meeting place for the local community, with approximately 150 members. It is a service organization which raises money for community projects and has frequent dinners. Although most of the Italian Americans in the area are Catholic, the church is not the main vehicle for preserving Italian culture in the area. Rather, Italian American heritage is celebrated through the festival, in family activities, and in community gatherings with the Sons of Italy Lodge.
Nick Ameli Jr.
Italian Heritage Festival
P.O. Box 3346
Bluewell, WV 24701
This is a very rich area for Jewish culture, with a history that is representative of the statewide Jewish community. In the early part of the century, Jewish merchants were a common component of the coalfield communities throughout West Virginia. They came from countries such as Russia, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania. Many men originally started as pack peddlers, selling much-needed household items door-to-door. Over time, many general merchandise stores owned by Jewish merchants appeared in the coal towns. Most of those old mining communities have now dwindled or are completely gone. For example, the town of Welch used to have a Jewish community, which is now gone. Keystone, the notorious mining town, also had a large Jewish community, including having a Jewish mayor at one time.
The current Jewish communities are in Beckley and Bluefield where they have a long history. Congregation Beth El was organized in Beckley in 1925 by approximately 15 Jewish families, and the synagogue building was erected in 1936. Today, it serves approximately 12 families. Bluefield and Princeton Jewish families worship at the Congregation Ahavath Shalom in Bluefield. Originally constructed in 1949, the synagogue currently provides a place of worship for approximately 60 families.
The synagogue in Bluefield represents a wide regional community, including nearby Princeton but also serving members from Athens, Mercer County, to Wytheville, Virginia. Jewish heritage can be found in the religious services as well as in community and family activities associated with religious activities and holidays.
Temple Beth El
P.O. Box 425
Beckley, WV 25802
Congregation Ahavath Shalom
Bluefield, WV 24701
In the New River/Greenbrier Valley region, approximately 500 individuals claim Arabic as their sole ancestry, and 600 individuals of multiple ancestry claim Arabic as their primary heritage. Mercer and Raleigh counties account for approximately 10% of West Virginia's Middle Eastern population.
Middle Eastern nationalities and ethnic groups are well-represented in the New River/Greenbrier Valley region, particularly in Raleigh County in the vicinity of Beckley. The most common Middle Eastern nationalities in this region have historically been Syrian and Lebanese. The Syrian-Lebanese community has roots associated with coal mining and businesses which served the coal town communities. Beckley and Bluefield are currently home to active Middle Eastern communities. Other Middle Eastern and Arabic regions represented in the area include Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Northern Africa. Many of these people have come to the area as part of the professional community in the past 25 years.
Beckley, Bluefield, and Princeton have both Islamic and Orthodox Christian communities. These communities each bring together individuals from many homelands, not just the Middle East. Smaller Greek, Serbian, and Russian communities in the area attend the same local Orthodox churches, as do families from Egypt, southern India, and other lands near the Middle East. Because the community is a diverse mix of cultures, heritage activities associated with ethnicity are maintained more so at the family level, rather than the community level.
The Princeton and Bluefield Islamic community is represented by the Islamic Society of the Appalachian Region and currently consists of approximately 45 families. Twenty-five families are Asian Indian, and approximately 18 are from the Middle East. The community also includes families of a variety of backgrounds who have converted to Islam. The community meets regularly at the mosque in Princeton, including a Friday night community gathering. Beckley also has a diverse Muslim community and meets for prayer as well as for the Friday night community gathering.
Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Beckley was founded in the 1940's by Lebanese and Greek families. Because the Orthodox communities here are small and mixed, ethnic activity in this region is mostly within the family, though to a certain extent the church and church services maintain traditions associated with each ethnic group in the community. In addition to the weekly service, several special traditional services are held each year. The church currently serves a diverse community of approximately 25 families, including Lebanese, Syrians, Greeks, Serbians, Russians, Asian Indians, and Egyptians. Because this is a very diverse church, it does not place an emphasis an on any single ethnic form of Orthodox Christianity. The church has an annual bake sale with Middle Eastern foods, which is currently the only public ethnic activity hosted by the church.
St. Mary's Orthodox Church was established in Elkhorn over 105 years ago, and has served a small but diverse Orthodox community. The church was recently moved to Bluefield, where there is also a mixed Orthodox community, including Syrian-Lebanese, Carpatho-Russian, and Greek families. See also Carpatho-Russian.
Islam Society of Appalachian Region
247 Frontage Rd.
Princeton, WV 24740
425-8468 (Islam Society)
Father Michael Tassos
St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church
211 S. Heber St.
Beckley, WV 25801
In the New River/Greenbrier Valley region, there are approximately 450 Native Americans, which represents approximately 9% of the Native American population in West Virginia.
See the General Description of the Statewide Native American Community
P.O. Box 672
Rainelle, WV 25962
Mountain State University
609 S. Kanawha St.
Beckley, WV 25801-5624
Beginning in about 1908, a large population of Spanish immigrants came to southern West Virginia to work in the coal mines. The majority of these came from Andalusia in southern Spain, and the regions of Galacia and Asturias in northern Spain. The Spanish population in southern West Virginia grew steadily during the early twentieth century, peaking at 2,212 in 1921. The largest concentration of these were in Raleigh County, which had 557, while other large numbers of Spaniards lived and worked in neighboring counties. In 1938, an organization called El Ateneo Espanol was formed in Beckley to promote the interests of local Spaniards. A meeting hall was constructed on Prince Street in 1939, and Spanish Hall, as it was known, soon became a popular gathering spot for Spaniards and others who attended dances and other activities there. The local Spanish population dwindled significantly throughout the 1940's and '50's, leaving a small but active community of Spaniards today in and around Beckley.
El Ateneo Espanol is still active, serving to unite Spaniards and Spanish descendants in southern West Virginia. There are currently between 40 and 50 members, mostly senior citizens. They meet several times a year at various locations around Beckley. Many still speak Spanish in their homes and retain close ties to their relatives in Spain. Unlike many immigrant communities in West Virginia, the Spaniards do not have a specific church affiliation. Beyond retaining the use of the Spanish language, there is little evidence of other remaining Spanish cultural activities such as foodways, dress, music, dance, holiday celebrations, or other cultural traditions. Many older Spaniards fear that they are the last generation to retain their Spanish identity, as most younger descendants have either moved away or have chosen more mainstream lifestyles.
P.O. Box 144
Mt. Hope, WV 25880
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