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The Lost U.S. Town

In the late 1800s, blue-collar laborers from Wales, Eastern Europe, and other remote regions traveled to West Virginia to mine coal, which ultimately helped build the cities that propelled America to the status of a worldwide superpower. 

The lively and occasionally tragic experiences of the area’s African American populations, which were essential to the industry and developing Appalachian culture, are also absent from that account.

Civil War Crisis:

African Americans flocked north into the West Virginia coal fields for work and some measure of security after the US Civil War ended and slavery was abolished in 1865. 

They fled white-led violence and racial segregation laws (known as Jim Crow laws) in Southern states.

Due to the high need for the in-demand fuel source in the following decades, entire communities arose in coal camps and prospered. 

Southern West Virginia had about 80,000 African Americans residing there by 1930, which had doubled in just 20 years.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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National Park:

The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, one of the newest national parks in the US, has recently brought attention to this region as a tourism destination. 

And while most visitors come for the breathtaking canyons, white-water rapids, and outdoor activities 

They also get the chance to learn about the area’s lesser-known aspect of history: the black people that came here more than a century ago to work in the local mines and railways.

The National Park Service has created an African American Heritage Auto Tour to recognize these locals’ accomplishments. 

The trip, which is best enjoyed over a few days, takes guests around southern West Virginia’s New River Gorge region and beyond, highlighting significant locations and events experienced by African Americans during coal was king.

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Camp Washington Carver:

The first African American 4-H camp in the US was established in 1942 and was named Camp Washington Carver. 

According to Eve West, director of interpretation, visitor services, and cultural resources at the New River Gorge park, locations like Camp Washington Carver should be noticed.

In the 1960s, blues singer Doris Fields, aka Lady D, grew up in Kayford, one of the region’s coal camps.

I adored it, she gushed. “In front of our home was a railroad track, and a brook ran behind it. Just down the road, where my father worked. Simply said, it was a good way to mature.”

Slab Fork, a similar coal camp now an unremarkable village 12 miles southwest of Beckley, is one of the tour’s 17 destinations.

Image courtesy of National Park Service

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Interesting Cultural Activities:

In the first part of the 20th century, Slab Fork, located atop the Winding Gulf Coal Field, was a kaleidoscope of languages, cultures, and musical events to break up the monotony of daily work.

Irish immigrants would get out their fiddles and sing ballads once the day’s mining or railroad track laying was finished. 

Eastern European miners sang folk melodies and played brass instruments, while African Americans would play the banjo and sing harmonies.

In this vibrant setting, Bill Withers, a legendary musician, was born in 1938. The impact Withers has had on music is legendary. 

The world-famous songs Ain’t No Sunshine, Just The Two Of Us, and Lean On Me were written by the multi-Grammy-winning musician and were inspired by his early years in Slab Fork and adjacent Beckley.

Port St. Lucie Country Music Tribute Bacon & BBQ Festival.
Image courtesy of tcpalm

Although Withers may have become Slab Fork‘s most well-known musician, various musical performers.

This helped to shape the distinctive African American culture in this area, according to Fields. 

In addition to performing in the centers, miners frequented music venues in neighboring villages where the Appalachian sound permeated mainstream music.

An active musical ecology was created. 

To accommodate the demand, nationally renowned jazz musicians were scheduled to perform in or near coal camp towns.

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Tourist Spot: 

In Oak Hill, West Virginia (one of the stops on the vehicle tour), the Harlem Heights neighborhood began to transform into an elite African American enclave by the 1940s.

The enclave was initially founded by five families who constructed their homes on an open field. 

By the middle of the 20th century, it was home to black clergymen, teachers, inspectors, and other professionals. 

By 1947, a school was established in Harlem Heights to instruct segregated children. 

This was because many African Americans had relocated to West Virginia since the educational opportunities there were superior to those in many Southern states.

Racism Issue:

There was also a lot of racism and sorrow, and the auto tour also took visitors through those incidents. 

For instance, it mentions the McKendree Miner’s Hospital, which provided segregated medical care for African Americans hurt in mining accidents.

There is a stop at the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, which occurred in 1930 when teams of primarily African American workers excavated a three-mile tunnel.

At least 724 of them perished from silicosis, a devastating lung illness brought on by breathing in silica dust. 

The incident is commemorated now with a plaque and a cemetery.

Like all miners, they endured highly hazardous working conditions. 

Image courtesy of networkforphl.org

Still, Lou Martin, an assistant professor of history at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who specializes in Appalachian history, said that this was made worse by the managers’ propensity to place black miners in the worst parts of the mines.

The Ku Klux Klan was also prominent in the nearby coal regions. 

They couldn’t enter some places after midnight because they were either off-limits to African Americans or had sundown laws in force. 

Two black coal workers were lynched in December 1919.

The historical importance of West Virginia’s African American miners is undeniable, as Fields, West, and others have noted, and the opening of the new national park presents an opportunity to share that significance. 

It’s crucial to relay this tale, according to West, and it allows us to better understand individuals who are close to us.

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