Mountaineer Reconstruction: Blacks in the Political Reconstruction of West Virginia

By Engle, Stephen D. | The Journal of Negro History, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Mountaineer Reconstruction: Blacks in the Political Reconstruction of West Virginia


Engle, Stephen D., The Journal of Negro History


10 Journal of the House of Delegates of the State of West Virginia (1865), pp. 26, 33, 37-38; (1866), pp.7-10; Journal of the Senate of the State of West Virginia, (1865), p. 27; (1866), p.31; Acts of the Legislature of the State of West Virginia (1865), pp. 37, 47-48; Hereinafter cited as House Journal, Senate Journal, and Acts of the Legislature. See also Talbot, "Negro Question in West Virginia," West virginia History, p. 19; and Ambler, "Disfranchisement in West Virginia," Yale Review, p. 41; Gerofsky, "Reconstruction in West Virginia," West Virginia History, p. 302; Parker, The Formation of the State of West Virginia, pp. 77-87. James Ferguson was also the author of the Voter's Test-oath Bill, and later declared upon the introduction of the measure, "I do not want the rebels to have any share in West Virginia was a child, if not a stepchild, of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Although the war had little affected the region, it created the conditions which enabled residents west of the Appalachians to form the new state. That portion of Virginia now known as West Virginia had initially been part of the Confederacy, and when residents became the first formally to secede from the Confederacy, it also became the first Southern state to abolish slavery, at least partially of its own resolve.

For mountaineers who resided west of the Appalachians, Reconstruction commenced in April 1861, when an assembly of spirited Unionists gathered in Wheeling annulled Virginia's ordinance of secession, formed the Reorganized Government of Virginia, and chose Francis H. Pierpont, a railroad attorney, as the state's lawful Union War governor. By June 1863, Arthur I. Boreman succeeded Pierpont as governor and West Virginia was recognized as a separate Union state, under the federal legislative condition that it abolish slavery. West Virginians then ratified a legislative referendum that accepted a measure whereby all blacks born after July 4, 1863, would be free. In January 1864, Frederick Douglass, delivering an address entitled "The Mission of the War," stated emphatically that "slavery . . . [had been] stunned nearly to death in Western Virginia."(1) At the close of the Civil War, complete emancipation had been established.

The founding of West Virginia reflected the fruition of more than fifty years of sectional strife in Virginia by crystallizing deep-rooted sectional tensions within the Old Dominion and by overthrowing the western region's own antebellum elite, which had generally supported secession. Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase commented at the time that it was "well known that for many years the people of West Virginia have desired separation on good and substantial grounds." To relieve, among some politicians, the apprehension regarding the constitutionality of dividing a state Chase added, "The case of West Virginia will form no evil precedent." He concluded by saying that the formation of West Virginia would not inspire the national government "to break up or impair the integrity of the States."(2)

Statehood brought leaders of competing local elites to the fore, who guided the creation of West Virginia and directed its government through the Civil War and Reconstruction era. With the exception of William E. Stevenson, Republicans were few in western Virginia during statehood. The political leadership was composed primarily of former Whigs, such as Waitman T. Willey of Monongalia County and Democrats William G. Brown of Preston County, Jacob Blair of Parkersburg, and Kellian V. Whaley of Mason County, who were loyal to the federal government. These leaders enacted long-demanded democratic reforms including "free public education, the secret ballot, annual elections, changes in the structure of local government," and tied the accountability of public office to the people by making state and county offices elective. A coalition of groups who had opposed tidewater domination and who for decades aversely tolerated the domination of conservative, slaveholding, aristocratic Virginians created the Mountain state. …

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