Much like the winding country roads that exist there today, West Virginia's road to statehood was anything but straight and direct.
A new film premiering Thursday night on West Virginia Public Broadcasting tracks that complicated journey, from the long-simmering resentments of Western Virginians toward their eastern brethren to the constitutionally suspect legal process by which we eventually divorced ourselves from the Commonwealth.
Co-produced by Russ Barbour and Chip Hitchcock and edited by John Nakashema, “The Road to Statehood” airs Thursday night at 8 p.m. on West Virginia PBS, in commemoration of the state’s 150th birthday.
The Register-Herald recently spoke with Barbour about some of the bigger questions overshadowing the film.
THE REGISTER-HERALD (RH): The standard story about the birth of West Virginia goes that we broke away from Virginia because we wanted to remain loyal to the Union, but is it that simple?
RUSS BARBOUR: I think a lot of us grow up thinking that West Virginia became a state because the people of Western Virginia were anti-slavery. Well, that's not the story. I describe it as a complicated story, hard to tell. The more information you share, the more you have to explain. In this case, you could say, well, it's all about slavery. But it's not, altogether. The roots really lie in the disgruntlement of Western Virginians, especially Northwestern Virginians. It was really hard for decades (before the Civil War) to get roads and infrastructure in Western Virginia. And at the same time, animosity developed within leaders in society over education and taxation that was really unfair. In eastern Virginia you had this aristocracy that really reigned over everything. So the Alleghenies served as this border that really went between two states of mind, so to speak. Then when the war comes and the Ordinance of Secession is passed in Richmond and put before the people, you have some Western Virginians who are actually really loyal to the Union. But there are also a number of them who want to be free of Virginia permanently. So in a real way, the Civil War is an excuse for these Western Virginia leaders to disembark from the state, the Commonwealth of Virginia.
RH: So what is least understood aspect of West Virginia statehood among West Virginians?
BARBOUR: I think that the thought that Western Virginia was abolitionist in nature is really the big one. We had slaves here. It looked different on the surface, lots of times. It depended where you were. In Cabell County, the Jenkins family had a plantation that would have probably, for all intents and purposes, functioned as a plantation in eastern Virginia. But in a lot of other places, it's more of a status symbol. The more slaves you have, the more prominent and powerful you are. And a lot of those slaves would be domestic or assisting with farming. Again, it really was as bad in many respects in Western Virginia. But like in the Kanawha Valley, the salt industry, which took off in the early 19th century, needed labor, so they turned to slave labor. Those people lived a pretty hard life.
RH: So how did slavery play into the course of events?
BARBOUR: Because of slavery, the war came. Because the war came, the only real opportunity Western Virginians would ever have to break off from Virginia came. Lincoln himself said, if it weren't for the war, this wouldn't be happening. So it's only for that reason. There would never, most likely, have been another such opportunity. It was really perfect. So slavery is the big issue in that regard. But the statehood movement leaders--a lot of them either had slaves at the time, or had owned slaves. In Wheeling itself, right around the time of the war, a lot of people were taken to court over educating and teaching slaves how to read. That was in Wheeling, where the statehood movement is in full force.
RH: Are there still parts of the statehood story that historians grapple with or don't understand, even today? What are the current historical debates that are still playing out?
BARBOUR: One of the challenges with "The Road to Statehood" was you had these historians in the early decades of the century that did not have information--military records and such--that are available today, so they made certain conclusions that weren't necessarily accurate. In the following decades, people have come along and built upon those errors, so to speak. That was very confusing to me, trying to piece that all together.
Another major issue here is that when people went to the polls to vote (on statehood), they had to vote orally. And when I say 'people,' I'm talking about white men. Women and African-Americans aren't voting. So when these white males get to the polls, there are Union troops standing there and you have to orally vote in front of them, so there was a lot of intimidation. So, legitimately, there are a lot of questions about the legitimacy of the votes. And another contributor to that was you might go to a community that, right before the start of war, was sympathetic to the South. Well, most of those eligible to vote are already gone fighting or they've been run off for the time being. So you're already not going to get an accurate reading whether people are for or against statehood, and there were a number of votes along the way.
Then there is the whole way that West Virginia became a state, legally speaking. Francis Pierpont figured out that constitutionally, here's the way you have to do it -- you can't just go and make it a state. For a part of an existing state to become its own state you have to have the permission of the existing state. The Commonwealth of Virginia is not going to grant such permission. So what you do is say, when those people joined the Confederacy back in May, they left their offices. So now that they've done that, those who stayed in and are still loyal to Union, they can be in this new government. They are trying to basically say that the same old government is there, even though some of the people have left. They are calling it the Restored Government of Virginia. So once you establish that, then that organization can grant permission to West Virginia to become a state. So they set forth and grant permission for West Virginia to be born.
RH: They give permission to themselves to break away from themselves.
BARBOUR: This is one of those conflicts where you have people saying, it's very clear that West Virginia was established illegally and should not be allowed to remain a state. But then you have historians who say it doesn't really matter. The President signed it into legislation and it became a state and there's no going back.
For more information on the film, and to view a trailer, visit http://www.wvpubcast.org/television.aspx?id=30358