CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- During Black History Month, West Virginians should remember that the Mountain State is deeply entwined with America's stormy racial record. In fact, West Virginia was created because western mountain residents refused to join Virginia and the Deep South in breaking away in a doomed attempt to preserve slavery.
Before the Civil War, the Kanawha Valley was supported largely by slaves working at Malden salt furnaces and river-bottom plantations. Charleston once had more slaves than Charleston, S.C. The 1850 census listed Kanawha County with 12,000 whites, 3,140 slaves and 212 free Negroes.
We sometimes retell how Samuel Cabell, fiery owner of a plantation below Dunbar, privately fell in love with one of his slave women, fathered 13 children by her, then was murdered by white neighbors. His handwritten wills gave his land to his secret mate and their forbidden children. That's how Institute became the state's largest black community.
The Kanawha Valley was a pathway of the Underground Railroad, through which runaways fled to slave-free Ohio and Pennsylvania. Plantations near Parkersburg lost many, because escapees merely needed to swim across the wide river at night.
Ceredo, Wayne County, was founded by abolitionists -- one of whom had a secret basement tunnel through which hideaways crept to the Ohio River.
West Virginia helped trigger the Civil War, because John Brown's 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry polarized America over slavery and made armed conflict unstoppable. After warfare erupted, several early battles occurred at Philippi, near Elkins, and other West Virginia locales. Romney changed hands an amazing 56 times during the war.
Charleston changed hands four times, including once in 1862 when Confederates drove Yankees downriver toward Point Pleasant. Part of Charleston burned, around 40 soldiers were killed, and nearly 200 were wounded. During times of Union possession, two future presidents -- Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley -- were Yankee commanders in Charleston.
Legendary Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson from West Virginia fought for slavery, as did a dozen other West Virginia warriors. (One of them, Charleston lawyer George S. Patton, who died from repeated war wounds, is best remembered as grandfather of a flamboyant World War II general.)
After the war, freed slave Booker T. Washington walked 200 miles to work at Malden, before becoming America's top black educator.
Carter Woodson, a son of slaves, worked at Fayette County coal mines, then attended high school at Huntington, and went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard. His efforts to save the racial record led to creation of Black History Month.
You see, the African-American record and West Virginia's record are thoroughly mixed.