- Apr 21, 2007
The forgotten history of the US' African American coal towns
One of the US' newest national parks has put West Virginia in the spotlight, but there's a deeper history to discover in the remnants of its African American coal communities.
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.