For young Carter G. Woodson, West Virginia shimmered in the distance, a not-so-far-off land of opportunity.
Of his decision to set off for this frontier as a teenager in the 1890s, the future “father of Black History Month” wrote that his home state of Virginia, “like most of the worn-out South, was passing through an age of poverty and to escape the hardships that endured in that state, younger Negroes went as workers to build railroads and open the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.” Neither did it help that, due to his father’s meager earnings as a carpenter, Woodson could only attend school when it snowed or when agricultural production was slow.
Part of a precursor wave to the Great Migration that propelled Southern Black people across the nation, Woodson (1875-1950) listened to his brother, Robert, who had relocated and glowingly reported the prospects in West Virginia. Woodson saw manna in the mines and followed his sibling to the southern part of the state.
In predominantly white Appalachia, Woodson continued his education and sharpened his interest in history. He wrote a few pieces that were remarkable in their early focus on Black people in a region that was, then and now, more diverse than contemporary stories of its white poverty and Trumpian politics imagine. Though his memories of West Virginia and research on the region make up a tiny share of his voluminous writings (which include the classic text The Mis-Education of the Negro), they are important contributions and correctives to versions of Appalachian history that define Appalachia by whiteness alone. Woodson may arguably be considered an intellectual pioneer in Appalachia studies, a field that became an academic discipline so late that, in 1966, West Virginia University librarian Robert Munn could still quip that “more nonsense has been written about the Southern Mountains than any comparable area in the United States.”
Woodson’s first stop in West Virginia: Nuttallburg, a boomtown that was later a pet project and fuel source for car magnate Henry Ford. As Woodson remembered in a 1944 recollection in his Negro History Bulletin, it was during his time in Fayette County that “my interest in penetrating the past of my people was deepened and intensified.”
The National Parks Service (which maintains historic Nuttallburg, which was abandoned in the 1950s) estimates that Black laborers made up almost 25 percent of West Virginia coal workers by 1909. Many served as coal loaders who filled the trucks. The work was dirty and dangerous: Early 20th-century reports of mine deaths document the violent deaths of Black Americans, Italians, Poles, when giant wedges of earth crushed them or when coal powder combusted and started fatal fires. But the wages were better than sharecropping or farm work, workers could leave early if they met their day’s packing targets, and though towns such as Nuttallburg separated black and white workers (in this case, with their residences on a separate side of a creek), they came with lodging.
African-Americans — some of them “leased” out while serving jail sentences — did the backbreaking and sometimes fatal work of laying railroad tracks that would shuttle the coal from the mountains to hearths nationwide. Woodson was among them, manning the line that traveled from Thurmond to Loup Creek until he found “more desirable work” in Nuttallburg’s coal mines and a part-time teaching gig.
In Nuttallburg, Woodson found a kindred spirit in Oliver Jones, who ran a tearoom for black workers. In Jones, he found a subject of a 1944 personal recollection, where he recalled this modest shop that was the nerve center for Nuttallburg’s black working class. The cozy setting was an alternative to the price-gouging company store, which “sold the essentials of life at prices from 60 to 100 per cent [sic] more than they were offered elsewhere. There was no objection, however, to Oliver Jones’ selling ice cream, fruits and especially watermelons, which he bought by the carload.” The autodidact Jones became a friend who was just as eager for conversation as Woodson.
Jones’ tearoom was both a sweet shop and a layman’s library. A former cook who had been injured in a mine accident, Jones could not read. But he impressed Woodson with his curiosity and broad intellectual interests. The two struck a deal: Woodson could eat to his heart’s content — for free — if he read newspapers to Jones and the Black men, many of them also illiterate, who frequented the shop for provisions and camaraderie. Woodson understood that Black people barely a generation removed from slavery, coal miners and laborers of all sorts, and mountain people had minds and interests that went beyond their often back-breaking work.
Jones and Woodson’s relationship was an intellectual bonanza for Woodson. He had read newspapers to his father, but had few publications to savor back in Virginia because “Negroes and poor whites could not spare funds for such a purpose, and we had to depend on stale news.” West Virginia miners had more disposable income, and while some spent it on gambling and alcohol, Jones spent his money on books and magazines.
Woodson wrote that Jones “bought interesting books on the Negro — J.T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx, W.J. Simmons’ Men of Mark, G.W. Williams’ Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, and others giving the important contributions of the Negro.” Jones also subscribed to newspapers for Black West Virginians, including Christopher Payne’s The Pioneer, and periodicals from Cincinnati, Toledo, and Pennsylvania. And his salon entertained Black visitors, who debated topics as varied as the role of blacks in the Civil War, whether the dollar’s value should be tied to gold or silver, and the white populist politicians who organized for workers rights. “In seeking through the press information on these questions for Oliver Jones and his friends, I was learning in an effective way the phases of history and economics.”
Woodson would go on to Kentucky’s Berea College; the University of Chicago; and Harvard, where he earned the second doctorate in history awarded to a black student (the first went to another scholarly polymath, W.E.B. DuBois). But much of his formative learning — inside and outside classrooms — happened in Nuttallburg and in Huntington, West Virginia, where he moved to attend high school as a young adult and then accepted a principal post at Douglass High School.
Since education was of the push-and-pull factors that propelled Woodson to West Virginia, it’s not a surprise that he trained his eyes on chronicling Black education in the state. In a 1921 paper titled “Early Negro Education in West Virginia,” Woodson noted both the small numbers of Black people in the state — some 13,000 had been enslaved in the mountainous counties — and the varied efforts to establish schools for this population. Himself a teacher in a West Virginia school, Woodson detailed the names and achievements of his fellow educators, sometimes commenting about their qualifications and failures to meet his high standards.
Woodson, often known for his acerbic wit and vocal denunciations of anything that assumed black inferiority, had remarkably little to say about white resistance to black education. Writing about Storer College, a school established in Harper’s Ferry, Woodson only wrote, “This institution, of course, had its opposition. But wherever there was a helpful attitude toward the Negro, the work which it was doing in spite of its difficulties stood out as a shining light.”
However, snippets from Woodson’s writings reveal a less sanguine view of white attitudes toward Black Americans who lived in Appalachia. In The Mis-Education of the Negro, he remembered meeting a “very faithful vestryman of the white Episcopal Church” who boasted of participating in an 1891 lynching of four Black coal miners in Clifton Forge, Virginia. And making a living may have been particularly difficult for smaller groups of Black professionals in West Virginia; as Woodson relayed, a simple land purchase he made from a white lawyer was delayed by six months because he had hired a Black attorney to see the process through. When Woodson inquired about why the transaction was taking so long, the “white attorney frankly declared that he had not taken up the matter because he did not care to treat with a Negro attorney; but he would deal with the author, who happened to be at that time the teacher of a Negro school, and was, therefore, in his place.”
In his 1944 article, Woodson shared the tale of a run-in between this father, who had also moved to West Virginia, with his supervisor on the railroad. At 25, Woodson was an adult and now a school principal, but he so loved hearing his father’s railroad cronies tell Civil War tales that he delivered his father’s Sunday breakfast — typically, a child’s errand — with little complaint. On one occasion, his father’s white railroad supervisor, only identified by the last name Wynnsong, got too exuberant in his praise of the Confederacy. The debate turned to fisticuffs, and “the employer got the better of the boss,” Woodson said. Wynnsong demanded the elder Woodson be fired to no avail, but the mechanic in charge banned all discussion of the War Between the States.
Those conversations probably lingered in Woodson’s mind. In 1916, Woodson published an article titled Freedom and Slavery in Appalachian America, one of the few pieces to tackle this topic at the time, in the Journal of Negro History he had founded just three years earlier. He compared the German and Scotch-Irish settlers of the “West” to the planters of the coastal regions. Woodson rhapsodized over what he argued was a love of democracy among the hard-scrabble settlers of the mountains, citing abolitionist movements in Kentucky and West Virginia as well as well-documented resistance to state and elite control:
“In the mountainous region the public mind has been largely that of people who have developed on free soil. They have always differed from the dwellers in the district near the sea not only in their attitude toward slavery but in the policy they have followed in dealing with the blacks since the Civil War. One can observe even to-day such a difference in the atmosphere of the two sections, that in passing from the tidewater to the mountains it seems like going from one country into another. There is still in the back country, of course, much of that lawlessness which shames the South, but crime in that section is not peculiarly the persecution of the Negro. Almost any one considered undesirable is dealt with unceremoniously. In Appalachian America the races still maintain a sort of social contact. White and black men work side by side, visit each other in their homes, and often attend the same church to listen with delight to the Word spoken by either a colored or white preacher.”
Woodson’s view was part reality and part romance: Swaths of whites in Appalachia resisted the Confederacy’s call to arms, but were also not as dependent on remote state governments or on slavery for economic survival. Typically small numbers of black residents and few community buildings did sometimes make for shared spaces — including schoolhouses — that were not segregated or policed in the same way or with the same rigor as they were in the South. But though Woodson got education and achieved some professional mobility in Kentucky and West Virginia — he later became a dean at what is now West Virginia State University — sometimes unsegregated didn’t mean racial utopia.
That’s one of the lesser told stories of Appalachia, stories that include Black migrants who mined coal and dreams on the frontier; former slaves who called the region home and became today’s “Affrilachians”; and small, intimate communities that simultaneously upheld and sometimes undermined Jim Crow. That was Woodson’s world. And as Huntington’s current mayor Steve Williams said during a recent Black History Month commemoration that featured Carla Hayden, the first Black head of the Library of Congress, “Woodson changed the world from Appalachia, he changed the world from Huntington, West Virginia, and his roots run deep here.”
Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a historian and journalist who works as the senior editor at Rewire, the leading online news source about reproductive health, rights, and justice. And, yes, she’s Black and has roots in Appalachia. Follow her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.