Last week was Confederate monuments, and this week I’d like to continue that conversation and address a historical inaccuracy that I often see floating around on social media. There is a belief that because chattel (plantation) slavery and the Civil War ended 155 years ago, and Jim Crow segregation ended 55 years ago, racism is a thing of the past and African-Americans ought to get over it, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and move on.
There are several problems with that belief, and they stem from the same root as does J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” Neither acknowledge the generational effects of poverty and exploitation, one ignores the extreme violence of the Jim Crow era, and the other ignores the environmental legacy of a century of extraction and greed that has given our state one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. Those leave scars that don’t heal so easily.
Firstly, the assertion that the Civil War is in the past, and people ought to get over it… The last Civil War pension was just closed last month! The daughter of a Confederate deserter turned Union soldier… 155 years is a split second for history and culture.
Secondly, even if we accept that we are far removed from the Civil War, I cannot emphasize enough that there are two-and-a-half generations alive today that remember segregation and Jim Crow! The Greatest Generation, Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers were all born before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Here in West Virginia, and yes, in Mason County, that meant school segregation, “separate but equal,” which in many cases was most certainly not equal, segregation or plain denial of service at businesses, threats of bodily harm for something as simple as walking the wrong way, much worse than threats if an African-American stayed in certain towns past sundown, and jail or the lynch mob for interracial marriages.
Now, before you say oh that didn’t happen here, it most certainly did! Lynchings in West Virginia were not as common as in Mississippi, but there are 37 documented cases and many more likely or rumored instances, including one black man that is said to have been taken to the riverbank above Mason and hung.
These lynchings were often carried out by the Ku Klux Klan, which at one time had quite a presence in Mason County. My own great-great-grandmother passed down stories of her and her friends going up to Brown Cemetery one evening and accidentally coming across a Klan meeting taking place, a story once told by many older folks in Hartford! And in rural cemeteries across the county, the letters “K.K.K.” adorn several headstones, as if membership was a source of pride.
Of course, lynchings were only one part of Jim Crow. The truly unfortunate part is that segregation and even lynchings were condoned and supported by (some) local, state, and even federal officials.
From the First West Virginia Legislature in 1863 until the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, interracial marriage was illegal in this state. When ex-Confederates were allowed back into politics in 1872, they re-wrote the West Virginia Constitution to include the phrase, “White and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school.” That law, which led to the establishment of the Langston School and later the Lakin State Industrial School for Colored Boys, stood until the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. BOE.
Even then, integration was not immediate in Mason County. (Some) Officials argued that they were “waiting on permission from Black parents,” but the truth is that they were hoping Brown II would rule in their favor and maintain segregation. It was not, and schools were integrated in the 1955-56 school year, but that was not the end. Point Pleasant and several other schools were threatened with bombings in 1958 because of integration, and Osage High near Morgantown actually was bombed.
It wasn’t until 1994 that the issue was finally settled in West Virginia, the year a ballot referendum was held to remove the moot phrases related to school segregation and white male-only voting from the state constitution. You’d think it’s a simple choice, right? The clauses are moot, so strike them out! Nope! Mason County, in 1994, voted to keep those in the state constitution! That is a disgrace!
To wrap this up, I’d just like to point out that these problems have not ended. Racism and discrimination did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as that 1994 vote shows, nor did they miraculously end just because we’ve elected an African-American president. Because of space, I can’t go into it as much as I’d like, but I would recommend reading Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” or Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law.” Both are extremely well-researched and well-written, and they do a wonderful job of explaining how we reached the point that we’re at.
Montani Semper Liberi.
Information from the Charleston Gazette, WV Encyclopedia, and WV State Archives.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.