MU symposium explores regional African American history

By The West Virginia Record | Oct 17, 2007



HUNTINGTON -- What J.R. Clifford accomplished for civil rights in West Virginia can't be disputed.

But there are all kinds of tales in the history of West Virginia that, while perhaps not as grand or well-known as Clifford's, are starting to surface and put together a picture of how race relations in the state have evolved.

"Appalachia in post-Civil War times is depicted as an ethnically pure region that had this sort of racial innocence ... devoid of slaves and racially enlightened," said Marshall University professor Kevin Barksdale. "Like a lot of things, there might be some grains of truth there, but not only were African Americans present in Appalachia, the black mountaineer played a critical role in the development of West Virginia."

Barksdale was one of several professors from Marshall and elsewhere speaking Tuesday afternoon at the "Roots and Branches" symposium at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. The panel discussion was offered as a prelude to an evening performance of "J.R. Clifford and the Carrie Williams Case," a historical reenactment of the landmark state Supreme Court of Appeals case in 1898, where Clifford, West Virginia's first black attorney, successfully defeated an attempt to reduce the school year for black children from nine months to five months.

Those who spoke at the symposium didn't spend much time on Clifford, instead bringing up some nuggets of history from their research in their respective fields.

Tim Konhaus, a professor at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va., mentioned that West Virginia actually had the highest number of lynching incidents per capita in the country. About one in every 3,000 African Americans in the state was lynched, he said.

But he added that West Virginia was also the first state to confront the problem, coming up with an effective lynching law in the early 1920s, well before any other state government or federal agency.

When county grand juries refused to indict members of lynch mobs on criminal charges, the state could force that county to pay the family of each lynching victim $10,000.

The penalty quickly reversed the system, Konhaus said.

"When we talk about African American history, a lot of times we talk about everything that has happened to them," Konhaus said. "It doesn't do justice to the field of African American studies, because we don't talk about what they've done.

"There is some measure of optimism here."

Marshall professor Cicero Fain offered similar thoughts.

"It's important to recognize that African Americans have always developed innovative responses to white racism and Jim Crow," Fain said. "They were actors instead of reactors.

"Segregation was always viewed as impacting black folks, but black people turned segregation into congregation. It brought them together."

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