When President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, he asked the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Bearing this in mind, PAWV chose this edition of Excuse for an Excursion to bring African-American Heritage in West Virginia to the forefront.
The African-American community has had a presence in West Virginia as early as the eighteenth century. In the twenty-first century, the West Virginia Department of Commerce created the African-American Heritage Trail, demonstrating how a once enslaved population could contribute to a state created during the Civil War. This trail features thirty-one sites spread over West Virginia, but concentrated along the I-64 and I-77 corridors, and around the tip of the Eastern Panhandle. Some of these sites include John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry, Booker T. Washington’s boyhood home in Malden, and the African-American Heritage Family Tree Museum in Ansted. Also, in Hinton, the statue of John Henry, the legendary railroad worker, stands tall near Big Bend Tunnel. For more information on West Virginia’s African-American Heritage Trail please click here.
More than just John Henry’s ties to the railroad, West Virginia was home to a line of another kind, the Underground Railroad. Several routes ran through the state including some along the National Road, the Northwestern Turnpike, the Parkersburg Staunton Turnpike, and many of the rivers. One such site believed to be part of the Underground Railroad is in Doddridge County. Luke Jaco used a cave near his Inn to help transport slaves along the Northwestern Turnpike from Winchester, Virginia to Parkersburg and the Ohio River. There are names and dates in the Jaco Cave carved by the people who took shelter there. For more information on the Underground Railroad trail through Doddridge County, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Noticing the mark the African-American community left on West Virginia, it makes it harder to ignore the history that has been lost forever, like the Colored Children’s Home that once stood outside Huntington. This building was on PAWV’s 2011 Endangered Properties list; it was demolished later that same year. By cherishing the history that remains, we can preserve and protect it for the future. So embrace the African-American heritage of West Virginia and let that be your excuse for an excursion – not just during Black History Month, but any month.