Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Promise and Prejudice: Wise County, Virginia and the Great Migration, 1910-1920

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Promise and Prejudice: Wise County, Virginia and the Great Migration, 1910-1920

Article excerpt

When tracing the path of American history, one almost invariably encounters themes of renewal and hope; of promises kept and broken; of the belief that opportunity waits continually over the next hill or around the next bend for those with the courage and initiative to go forth and seize it. Despite the much-heralded passing of the American frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, the country has since remained home to a restless society in which geographical mobility has been encouraged by the perpetual promise of social mobility and variety of experience. Mobility was a prevalent theme among African-Americans of the postbellum South, who despite the absence of legal bondage were entrenched at the bottom of a racial caste system maintained by brute force and increasingly, as the century drew to a close, by the validation of law. The coming of a new century brought little promise to blacks in the Deep South; agricultural blight diminished their already marginal position in the region's economy, while legalized disenfranchisement and segregation accompanied by an escalation of lynchings and other racial violence rendered the everyday life of the black southerner increasingly dangerous and dehumanizing. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the stream of human exodus had swollen to a torrent; between 300,000 and 1,000,000 African-Americans left the South between 1910 and 1920 in what is commonly known as the Great Migration.(1)

Patterns of migration during this period, although following a general trend toward movement from Southern rural areas to urban centers outside the South, varied in terms of points of origin and choice of destination. One such destination was the coalfields of the central Appalachian region, consisting of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia. This study will focus upon the migration of African-Americans into Wise County, Virginia during the peak of the Great Migration, with special emphasis upon migratory patterns into Wise County and the general racial climate in the county during this period. Little has been written on the movement of blacks into Appalachia during the Great Migration, and virtually no attention has been given to the unique experience of blacks who chose Wise County as a temporary or permanent destination. Wise County's status as the dominant coal-producing county in Virginia during this period warrants such a study.

Coal was first mined in Virginia around 1760, and Virginia was the first state in which blacks were employed in the coal mines. As early as 1796, coal mines operating in the "Richmond Basin" near Jamestown used slave labor and employed free blacks.(2) Beginning in the 1850s, slaves worked the coalfields of the Kanawha valley in what is now West Virginia, and after the Civil War many black laborers who helped to construct railroads in the region (including a young Booker T. Washington) entered the Kanawha valley mines.(3) The coalfields of northern Alabama, in which the first mines were opened around 1840, used black labor acquired through the system of convict leasing, a system in which convicted criminals were contracted by states to private companies. Convict leasing was practiced primarily in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama as an alternative to confinement deemed necessary due to a lack of prison space. Unlike slaves, who were at least valuable to owners as property, convicts were completely expendable and were treated brutally.(4) Nevertheless, those who were able to survive the system were discharged with marketable skills, and many stayed in the mines when their sentences were completed. A significant number of these miners, however, abandoned the unpleasant memories and occupational discrimination of the Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia coalfields in search of higher pay, more favorable working conditions, and better race relations. Many went north to West Virginia and surrounding areas, such as eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. …

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