The Hidden History of Black Coal TownsBreaking News
tags: historic preservation, African American history, National Parks, West Virginia, Coal, Appalachia
The story of West Virginia's past often goes something like this: in the late 1800s, blue-collar workers came from Wales, Eastern Europe and other far-flung corners of the world to mine coal that ultimately built the cities that fired America to global superpower status. But that story leaves out an important element: the vibrant and sometimes tragic experiences of the region's African American communities, which were integral to the industry and to a burgeoning Appalachian culture.
Fleeing white-led violence and racial segregation laws (known as Jim Crow laws) in Southern states after the end of the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1865, African Americans streamed north into the coal fields of West Virginia in search of jobs and a modicum of security.
In the decades that followed, entire communities emerged in coal camps – and thrived, thanks to demand for the much sought-after fuel source. By 1930, around 80,000 African Americans were living in southern West Virginia, a figure that had doubled in just 20 years.
Now, one of the US' newest national parks, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, has put this area in the travel spotlight. And although most visitors are coming for the stunning canyons, white-water rapids and outdoor recreation, they also have an opportunity to learn about this area's lesser-known strand of history: the black communities that moved here to work in local mines and railways more than a century ago.
To mark the contributions of these residents, the National Park Service has developed an African American Heritage Auto Tour. Best experienced over a couple of days, the tour takes visitors around the New River Gorge region in southern West Virginia and beyond, highlighting important destinations and events experienced by African Americans at a time when coal was king.
"Places such as Camp Washington Carver [the first African-American 4-H camp in the US] are a must-visit," said Eve West, chief of interpretation, visitor services and cultural resources at the New River Gorge park.
Artist Doris Fields, a blues singer who performs under the name Lady D, grew up in Kayford, one of the area's coal camps, in the 1960s. "I loved it," she said. "A creek ran behind our house and the railroad tracks were right in front of the house. My father worked just down the road. It was just a good way to grow up."
One of the tour's 17 stops is a similar coal camp, Slab Fork, today a nondescript community 12 miles south-west of the city of Beckley.
It wasn't always like this.