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A Timeline of African-American History in West Virginia
1619. In August, the first 20 African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia for the use of British colonists. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 6.
1775. On November 7, Virginia Governor Dunmore authorized the recruitment of free African Americans into the British Army. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 59.
1778. On May 29, following a brief retreat after the attack on Fort Randolph in Point Pleasant, Mason County, Native American warriors attacked Fort Donnally in present Greenbrier County. Militiamen John Pryor and Philip Hammond, disguised as Native Americans, traveled from Fort Randolph to Fort Donnally, notifying residents of the impending attack. At one point, Hammond and Dick Pointer, one of Colonel Donnally’s slaves, allegedly held off the attackers by themselves. Troops from Camp Union commanded by Matthew Arbuckle and Samuel Lewis ended the attack the following day. In 1795, the Virginia General Assembly freed Pointer from slavery in appreciation for his actions. Source: Rice, West Virginia: A History, 41.
1832. On January 20, Charles Faulkner of Berkeley County delivered a speech before the Virginia General Assembly in which he denounced slavery on economic grounds. William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the speech annually in his abolitionist newspaper Liberator, as an example of anti-slavery sentiment in the South. Source: Doherty, Berkeley County, U.S.A., 125.
1835. On October 14, John Templeton, John Moore, Stanley Cuthbert, and Ellen Ritchie were charged with illegally teaching African Americans to read in Wheeling. This incident was among twelve such cases in Wheeling. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 126.
1847. In 1847, the Reverend Dr. Henry Ruffner, from Kanawha County, and President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, delivered his “Address to the People of West Virginia” on the abolition of slavery for western Virginia for economic reasons. Source: Rice, West Virginia: A History, 104.
1859. On October 16, John Brown and his followers seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County. Their goal was to ignite a slave rebellion and establish a colony for runaway slaves in Maryland. The raid was a disaster for Brown. He and his men were trapped in a small engine house and local slaves did not revolt as expected. 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. Source: Bushong, Historic Jefferson County, 179-189.
1862. On January 27, Ohio County minister and convention delegate Gordon Battelle proposed that the new state constitution provide for the gradual abolition of slavery rather than the immediate abolition he had proposed on 2 December 1861. This version of the proposal became the basis of the Willey Amendment. Source: Rice, West Virginia: A History, 145.
1862. On July 14, the West Virginia Statehood bill was passed by the Senate, changing the slavery provision of the West Virginia Constitution to allow for the gradual emancipation of slavery. After Senator Charles Sumner had demanded that immediate emancipation be included in the final bill, Waitman Willey proposed the compromise for gradual emancipation, which passed. John Carlile, after attempting to block or delay passage of the bill, voted against it, due to the inclusion of the Willey Amendment (although Carlile was a slave owner himself, his statehood bill also provided for slave emancipation). Senator Benjamin Wade noted that Carlile’s “conversion” was “greater than that of St. Paul.” Source: Rice, West Virginia: A History, 147-148.
1863. On January 1, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in areas of rebellion, but did not apply to states loyal to the Union, including the future state of West Virginia.
1863. On July 15, the governor approved an act giving African Americans the same rights to criminal trial as whites. However, blacks were denied the right to serve on a jury. Source: Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1863. On December 9, the governor approved an act forbidding residency of any slave who entered the state after June 20, 1863. Source: Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1865. On February 3, the governor approved an act abolishing slavery, providing for the immediate emancipation of all slaves. Source: Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1867. In 1867, Freedmen’s Bureau officials reported 7 African-American schools existed in the Kanawha Valley — at Buffalo (Putnam County), Tinkersville, Chappel Furnace, Oakes Furnace, Campbell’s Creek, and two in Charleston, with 241 students enrolled. Source: Stealey, “Reports of Freedmen’s Bureau District Officers on Tours and Surveys in West Virginia,” West Virginia History, 149.
1867. On January 16, West Virginia Legislature ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting full citizenship to African Americans. Source: Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1867. On October 2, Storer College in Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County, admitted its first students. Storer was the first African- American college in West Virginia. The institution had been established by the Free Will Baptist church as a school for runaway slaves during the Civil War. In 1867, Storer was incorporated by the state as a school for African Americans under the leadership of the Rev. Nathan C. Brackett. Storer trained many prominent black educators and lawyers during its nearly ninety-year history. Source: Bushong, Historic Jefferson County, 267.
1869. On March 23, the West Virginia State Senate ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by a vote of 10 to 6, with 6 either absent or abstaining. The Fifteenth Amendment granted African Americans the right to vote. The previous day, the House of Delegates ratified the amendment by a vote of 22 to 19. The approval of the amendment caused many conservative Republicans to ally with the Democrats, leading to approval of the Flick Amendment, which enfranchised former Confederates. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 192-193.
1872. On May 20, an Ohio County circuit court indicted Taylor Strauder, a Wheeling carpenter, for murdering his wife. During the court’s July term, Strauder was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. This case was eventually tried in the United States Supreme Court, in which it was ruled unconstitutional to try an African American in a court system which forbade eligible African Americans from serving on juries as was the case in West Virginia. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 204.
1873. On March 12, the governor approved acts authorizing that only white males over the age of 21 could serve on juries, despite a petition presented by Charles Arter from 64 African Americans in Jefferson County who wanted to serve as jurors. Source: Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1873. On June 11, Charleston Mayor Snyder and the city council appointed Ernest Porterfield as a police officer, the first African American to receive a public job in Kanawha County and possibly West Virginia. Within one hour, the remainder of the white police force, including Chief Rand, resigned. Rather than ask for Porterfield’s resignation, Snyder hired a new force. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 202.
1877. On June 27, at the request of Charleston politicians Republican Romeo H. Freer and Democrat John E. Kenna, Booker T. Washington of Malden, Kanawha County, began a lecture tour of the state, encouraging African Americans to vote for Charleston as the permanent state capital. Since West Virginia’s creation, the state capital had alternated between Charleston and Wheeling. In August 1877, voters selected Charleston as the permanent state capital over Clarksburg or Martinsburg.
1881. On February 3, the governor approved a bill, allowing all eligible voting citizens, including African Americans, to be jurors. In their October 1879 Taylor Strauder decision, the U.S. Supreme Court had found the West Virginia law forbidding African Americans from serving on juries to be unconstitutional. Source: Acts of the West Virginia Legislature; Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 206.
1888. On September 13, discontented with the Republican, Democratic, Union Labor, and Prohibition parties, 49 African-American delegates convened in Charleston and nominated their own election ticket, consisting of the following: W. H. Davis of Kanawha County for governor; E. A. Turner of Brooke County for auditor; Alfred Whiting of Hampshire County for treasurer; T. M. Thurston of Hampshire County, Edward Turner of Brooke County, Albert Alexander of Hampshire County, John A. Jefferson of Kanawha County, and John Jordan of Mason County as presidential electors. An Executive State Committee was formed, consisting of the following: H. C. Hawkins, W. S. Peen, John Rose of Mason County, Albert Alexander, W. A. Hunter of Barbour County, E. A. Turner, Peyton Murry of Kanawha County, Aaron Jordan of Pocahontas County, and Alex Davis of Upshur County. This was the first major election in the state in which African Americans became a significant voting force. After the election, Democrats accused Republicans of bringing in African Americans from Virginia to vote illegally for Nathan Goff. Accusations pointed to voting irregularities in Mercer County, McDowell County, Wyoming County, Fayette County, and Raleigh County. These and other accusations of fraud caused a dispute over the election results. Democrat A. B. Fleming was finally determined to be the winner in 1890, over a year after the election. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 207-210.
1891. On March 4, the West Virginia Legislature passed an act establishing the West Virginia Colored Institute at Institute in Kanawha County. The West Virginia Colored Institute, later renamed West Virginia State College, became one of the leading black institutions of public learning in the nation. It was created following the state’s rejection of a proposal to take over Storer College in Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County. The act was approved by the governor on March 17. Source: Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1895. On February 21, the West Virginia Legislature passed an act establishing the Bluefield Colored Institute, which later became Bluefield State College, Mercer County. The act became law without the approval of the governor on February 28. The school’s Board of Regents consisted of the following members: State Board of Education Superintendent Virgil A. Lewis; J. C. Bradey of Wheeling; G. M. Bowers of Martinsburg, Berkeley County; W. M. Mahood of Princeton, Mercer County; and J. S. Marcum of Huntington. The Executive Committee consisted of the following members: Judge D. E. Johnson of Bluefield and Dr. J. C. Hughes and W. H. Straley of Princeton, all from Mercer County. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 243-244; Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1896. Voters elected the first African American to the legislature, Christopher Payne of Fayette County. Source: Sheeler, “The Negro in West Virginia Before 1900,” 211.
1898. On November 16, the trial of Williams v. Board of Education of Tucker County began. Carrie Williams was a black teacher in the segregated school system of Tucker County. The board of education tried to save money by cutting African-American school term from eight to five months. Williams taught for the entire eight-month term and sued the board for the extra three-months’ pay. Williams’ lawyer J. R. Clifford argued that African-American schools should receive the same funding and have the same rights as white schools. Williams’ court victory was the first in the nation to determine discrimination on the basis of color to be illegal. Source: Trotter, Honoring Our Past, 184-186.
1900. On January 31, the West Virginia Legislature incorporated the West Virginia Colored Orphan’s Home in Bluefield. Before opening the following year, the Rev. Charles E. McGhee had moved the site of the home to Huntington. Source: Ambler, A History of Education in West Virginia, 700-701.
1902. On November 4, James M. Ellis was elected to the House of Delegates from Fayette County, becoming the second African American elected to the West Virginia Legislature. Source: Posey, The Negro Citizen of West Virginia, 41.
1906. African-American physicians founded the West Virginia Medical Society.
1906. From August 15 to August 19, the second meeting of the Niagara Movement convened at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County. Led by W. E. B. DuBois, this movement was the forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Source: Spirit of Jefferson, August 14, 1906, 3 (Harpers Ferry National Historical Park History Database).
1915. In 1915, 78 African Americans from West Virginia were attending colleges outside the state because no West Virginia college would admit them. In 1929, the West Virginia Collegiate Institute and the Bluefield Colored Institute conferred the state’s first college degrees to African Americans.
1919-1921. Between 1919 and 1921 T. G. Nutter, Harry Capehart, and T. J. Coleman, three African-American legislators, were responsible for the creation of several state-funded institutions for blacks. The West Virginia Industrial Home for Colored Girls in Huntington and the West Virginia Industrial Home for Colored Boys in Lakin, the West Virginia Colored Deaf and Blind School at Institute, and the West Virginia Hospital for Colored Insane at Lakin were all given state funding. The institutions were to be run by African Americans. Other publicly funded institutions for African Americans included the West Virginia Home for the Aged and Infirmed Colored Men and Women in Huntington, the West Virginia Colored Orphans Home in Huntington, and the West Virginia Colored Tuberculosis Sanitarium at Denmar. Source: Posey, The Negro Citizen of West Virginia, 58-62; Acts of the West Virginia Legislature.
1921. In 1921, the Negro Bureau of Welfare and Statistics was created under Dr. T. Edward Hill. The bureau’s goal was to assist African Americans economically, such as providing help in purchasing farms. The agency existed until 1957.
1925. On March 19, the first West Virginia Athletic Union state basketball tournament began at the West Virginia Colored Institute gym at Institute, Kanawha County. Eleven of the state’s twenty-four African-American high school basketball teams participated. On the 21st, Lincoln High School of Wheeling defeated Kimball High School 25 to 24 to win the first championship. Barnett, “West Virginia’s Separate But Equal High School Basketball Tournament,” 1.
1925. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was scheduled to open at the Rialto Theatre in Charleston on April 1. In late March, several African-American leaders protested the showing of the film on the grounds it violated a 1919 state law prohibiting any entertainment which demeaned another race. Mayor W. W. Wertz and the West Virginia Supreme Court supported their argument and prevented the showing of the film. Source: Posey, The Negro Citizen of West Virginia, 70-71.
1928. In 1928, Minnie Buckingham Harper was appointed to the House of Delegates, becoming the first African-American woman to serve in a legislative body in the United States. She was appointed to fill the unexpired term of her husband, E. Howard Harper, of Welch, McDowell County. Source: Posey, The Negro Citizen of West Virginia, 44.
1930. On March 30, the New-Kanawha Power Company broke ground on the Hawks Nest Tunnel and Dam, part of the New River power project, with an estimated 800 men employed. Over the next five years, at least 476 workers, mostly migrant African Americans from the South, died from silicosis, a disease caused by inhaling silica rock particles. The deaths were attributed to inadequate safety practices by the contractors, Rinehart and Dennis, who were employed by the Union Carbide Corporation. Some of the dead were buried in a mass grave to hide the actual number of casualties. Fifty years later, one study placed the death toll as high as 764, making it the worst industrial disaster in United States history. Source: Cherniack, The Hawks Nest Incident, 104; McKinney, Elkem Metals: Ninety Years of Progress in the Kanawha Valley, 30-31.
1931. On December 10, two African Americans accused of killing two white constables were forcibly removed from the Greenbrier County jail and lynched by a mob of white men. Following several convictions for the lynching, the West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a 1921 anti-lynching law drafted by Harry J. Capehart and T. G. Nutter. Source: Posey, The Negro Citizen of West Virginia, 78-80.
1939. On September 11, West Virginia State College President John Warren Davis received approval from the Civilian Aeronautics Authority in Washington, D.C., to establish a Civilian Pilot Training Program at the college, the first African-American college in the country to do so. In the summer of 1940, West Virginia State College became the first black college to enroll white trainees into its flight program, a precedent for integrating the military. Among those enrolled were George Spencer Roberts, who became the first African-American appointed to the United States Army Air Corps. Source: Withrow: From the Grove to the Stars, 140- 145.
1942. On June 26, Governor Matthew Neely, State Superintendent of Black Schools D. T. Murray, and West Virginia State College President John Warren Davis dedicated Camp Washington-Carver in Fayette County as the state’s African-American 4-H Camp.
1947. Luther Bennett Ferguson was named mine foreman at the Riverton coal mine in Crown Hill, becoming the first African-American foreman in the state. Source: Charleston Gazette, May 9, 1991.
1950. Elizabeth Simpson Drewry of McDowell County became the first African-American woman elected to the House of Delegates. She served until 1964. Source: West Virginia Blue Book.
1954. On May 17, the United States Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision prohibiting segregation of schools based on race. Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall represented Brown, while the boards of education of several southern states were represented by Clarksburg native John William Davis. The decision prompted the gradual desegregation of West Virginia’s public schools and colleges. West Virginia State College quickly integrated whites into its program; Bluefield State College integrated more slowly. The state withdrew funding for Storer College, which closed within a matter of years. The Brown decision also resulted in the integration of public institutions and the discontinuance of agencies such as the Negro Bureau of Welfare and Statistics. Source: Johnson, “Integration in West Virginia Since 1954,” vi.
1954. On June 1, State School Superintendent W. W. Trent sent letters to all county public school superintendents, suggesting proper methods of school integration:
As segregation is unconstitutional, boards of education, in my opinion, should begin immediately to reorganize and re-adjust their schools to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision. In some instances where there are but few Negro pupils, and where all buildings at this time are accommodating a maximum number of pupils, and in some instances a number too large for convenient accommodation considerable time may be required before segregation is entirely eliminated.
Source: Johnson, “Integration in West Virginia Since 1954,” 7.
1954. On September 14, West Virginia NAACP Charleston Branch president Willard A. Brown spoke to African Americans at the White Sulphur Springs Baptist Church, concerning the decision of the Greenbrier County Board of Education to maintain segregated schools. During the meeting, white protestors shut off the lights and fired guns outside the church. A U.S. Supreme Court decision the following month placed more pressure on school systems which resisted desegregation. Consequently, all counties in West Virginia, including Greenbrier, began integrating schools by January 1956. However, White Sulphur Springs students voted to hold their prom in December instead of May to prevent African Americans from attending the annual affair held at The Greenbrier. Despite such incidents, the desegregation of West Virginia’s public schools was less turbulent than most other southern states.
1957. On March 14, Park Central High School of Bluefield defeated Byrd-Prillerman High School of Amigo to win the final West Virginia Athletic Union (African-American) High School Basketball Tournament. Source: Barnett, “West Virginia’s Separate But Equal High School Basketball Tournament,” 9, 27.
1957. On September 4, the Hampshire County Board of Education became one of the last in the state with black students to integrate its schools, when it admitted four African Americans to Romney High School and Capon Bridge Elementary School. At approximately the same time, Jefferson County and Hardy County also integrated. Source: Johnson, “Integration in West Virginia Since 1954,” 37.
1958. In March, the Rev. Joseph H. King, an African-American minister from New Jersey, announced a Charleston restaurant was the first to refuse him service on a trip from Birmingham, Alabama. That same month, several African-American boxers walked out of the All West Virginia Amateur Boxing Tournament, sponsored by the Charleston Gazette. The protest occurred because one of the boxers was asked to sit in the balcony of the American Legion Armory rather than on the main floor. Gazette promotion manager James Dent resolved the situation, stating the newspaper would not permit the arena to be segregated. Source: Johnson, “Integration in West Virginia Since 1954,” 54-55.
1958. On August 11, the state’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 five-and-ten-cent 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. Source: Johnson, “Integration in West Virginia Since 1954,” 55, 65.
1958. In December, former Garnet High School coach James R. Jarrett was named head basketball coach at Charleston High School, the first African American in the state to be appointed head coach at a previously all-white public school. Source: Johnson, “Integration in West Virginia Since 1954,” 44.
1959. On March 31, a study by the West Virginia Advisory Committee on behalf of the United States Commission on Civil Rights reported little progress in the state since 1954 in regards to employment of African Americans. Only one black engineer was employed in the Kanawha County chemical industry, despite the large number graduated in that field from West Virginia State College.
1961. The West Virginia Human Rights Commission was created by the legislature to fight racism. The leading commissioners were Chairman Thomas W. Gavett and Executive Director Howard W. McKinney. 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. Source: “First Annual Report of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.”
1966. By 1966, nearly all of the hospitals in the state had agreed to end discriminatory practices, due in large part to the work of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.
1972. On December 22, Arnold Miller became the first native West Virginian to head the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. He appointed Levi Daniel president of District 29 in southern West Virginia, the first African-American district president in the history of the UMW.