Sometimes it's said that they "made a way with no way." American blacks originally were dragged to this continent in chains. Their descendants suffered two centuries of cruel slavery -- then another century of segregation and poverty, even lynching -- before winning legal equality in the mighty civil rights movement after World War II.
The history of African-Americans is more tormented and convulsive than the record of most other ethnic groups. During this Black History Month, it's wise to ponder their long, difficult struggle to gain opportunity in the world's richest nation.
Before the Civil War, western Virginia was a borderland between the slave South and the free North. The Kanawha Valley teemed with slave-labor operations. The 1850 census found that Kanawha County had 12,000 whites, plus 3,140 slaves and 212 free Negroes.
But the Kanawha Valley also was a conduit of the Underground Railroad, through which slaves fled to liberty in slave-free Ohio and Pennsylvania -- although there's little documented record of the hush-hush secret travel-by-night effort.
Former West Virginia State University Vice President Ancella Bickley said the Underground Railroad "was one of the early instances of interracial cooperation," because abolitionist whites risked attacks or jailing by hiding escaped slaves.
Jim Comstock's West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia tells of a runaway slave couple who lost hope of making it to freedom, so they committed suicide together inside a mountain cave, rather than return to bondage.
Parkersburg has historical markers -- one to "Aunt Jenny," a slave who was a conductor of the Underground Railroad, the other recounting the escape of slaves from the nearby Harness plantation.
The West Virginia Encyclopedia says the town of Ceredo, Wayne County, was founded by abolitionists -- and one of them, Z.D. Ramsdell, had a basement tunnel through which hideaways crept to the Ohio River at night. It adds:
"Just east of Parkersburg, the Nutter farm was an alleged stop in the Underground Railroad. Local stories persist that members of the Nutter family were murdered for their aid to runaway slaves."
Researcher Sandra Moats Burke wrote that abolitionists were a driving force who caused western counties to break from slaveholding Virginia early in the Civil War, creating this state.
She said Francis Pierpont, temporary governor of the breakaway state, once "represented a black man accused of being a conductor of the Underground Railroad." She added:
"Our state's third governor, William Erskine Stevenson, was one of the founders of the abolitionist colony of Valley Mills in Wood County. Stevenson was once indicted by a Wood County grand jury for circulating an abolitionist book.
"Our first governor, Arthur I. Boreman, was son of an abolitionist family who came from Pennsylvania. A family historian reports the Boreman's former residence was used as a station of the Underground Railroad."
We sometimes recount the tale of Samuel Cabell, owner of a lucrative antebellum Kanawha Valley plantation below Dunbar, who secretly fell in love with one of his slave women, had 13 children by her, then was murdered by white neighbors -- but not before he left handwritten wills giving his land to his illegal mate and their forbidden children. Thus Institute became the state's largest black community.As you can see, West Virginia has plenty to ponder in Black History Month.