When Cicero Fain began working on his Ph.D., he took a deep look at the black community in Huntington, West Virginia. He wanted to understand where it began and what helped it to thrive. That research ultimately became his new book “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story.”
One major factor that boosted growth in Huntington was the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad. When Collis P. Huntington decided to build a depot in Huntington, he needed workers.
Many of the men who came were African Americans leaving the deep South. They worked for the railroad in the trainyard as well as laying track and digging tunnels in the mountains.
Fain said one thing that surprised him is what he called the “Grapevine Telegraph.” Leading up to the Civil War, it was an informal network that allowed free and enslaved blacks to communicate and discuss their situations.
The grapevine telegraph was most prevalent in places like White Sulphur Springs. Many of the men and women worked in resorts where they also met travelers and even earned additional money through tips.
For Fain, one takeaway from the book is that it is important for people to recognize the contributions of the black community to the development of Huntington, the region and the state.
“They assisted Huntington into becoming the economic and cultural powerhouse that it became,” Fain said. “I think there are real lessons embedded within that story that speaks to the ability of a people to move forward.”
The book is available through the University of Illinois Press.
This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.