Expert recovers the history of Black communities in late-1800s Appalachia
February 15, 2023
The commemoration of Black History Month affords an opportunity to explore the rich history of Black communities in Appalachia between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era. Daniel Thorp, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, has dedicated his research toward this aim.
Q: A widespread misconception about southern Appalachia maintains slavery didn’t exist in the region, thus there was a sparse Black populace. What was the reality?
“If a time traveler were to arrive in Southwest Virginia in the late 1800s seeking African American/Black communities, he or she would find dozens of rural Black communities and Black neighborhoods in almost every town in the region. Thousands of enslaved men and women lived in Southwest Virginia when slavery ended, in 1865, and many of them stayed in the region for years after gaining their freedom. Few had the resources to move immediately, and this is where their family and friends were; so they stayed.”
Q: How did African American communities come together in post-Civil War Appalachia?
“Almost immediately they began to establish dozens of independent Black churches, and with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau and northern philanthropic societies they opened dozens of schools. These churches and schools often became the nuclei around which Black communities grew.”
Q: How did the people in these communities support themselves?
“Rural Blacks were mainly farmers, though some men combined farming with work on the railroad. In towns, Black men were often laborers, though small numbers worked as craftsmen or shopkeepers, and by the end of the century a very small number of Black lawyers and doctors had begun to appear. Black Women living in towns often worked as domestic servants.”
Q: Did any of them have a say in regional politics?
“Throughout this era Black men participated in politics. Few were elected to office in Southwest Virginia, but Black men voted in large numbers until the early 20th century, when a new state constitution made it almost impossible for them to do so.”
Q: What caused modern misconceptions about Black communities in Appalachia to take hold?
“Racism became more pronounced in Southwest Virginia at the turn of the 20th century. Lynching became common during the 1890s, and after 1900 segregation became more widespread and a new state constitution disenfranchised Black men almost entirely. These changes, combined with the difficulty of making a living in Southwest Virginia, led more and more African Americans to leave the region and move to southern cities like Roanoke or Charlotte, to coal fields in West Virginia, Ohio, and Iowa, or to northern cities like Chicago. Today few of these Black communities or neighborhoods still exist and few Whites, at least, even remember them.”
Daniel Thorp is an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. Shortly after he joined the faculty, Thorp noticed that the prevailing story that slavery was mostly unheard of in Appalachia did not match the historical evidence and began researching further. He advocated for the dedication of Vaughn-Oliver Plaza, named after Virginia Tech’s first known Black employee. Read Thorp’s full bio here.
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