FAYETTEVILLE — Fayette County’s history is intimately tied in with Black History Month specifically and monumental achievements by African-Americans generally, Fayette County Circuit Clerk Danny Wright said.

Not only did the county send West Virginia’s first three black legislators to Charleston, but the found-er of Black History Month lived and taught here for several years at the dawn of the 20th century.

According to Wright’s research, Carter Woodson was born to a large and poor family in Buckingham County, Va., in 1875. Largely self-taught in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, Woodson ended up in his state’s neighbor to the west when his family decided to further his education in Huntington.

Woodson enrolled at all-black Douglass High School — named for the famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass — in 1895 and received his diploma in less than two years. Fate would bring him to a small Fayette County town called Winona in 1897, and it was there he taught school for three years.

When he wasn’t teaching school — the school term at the time lasted only three to six months — Woodson labored in the coal mines that lined the New River. He was also active, Wright said, in establishing a black church in the Winona area.

In 1900, Woodson returned to Huntington to become the principal of his alma mater. Shortly thereafter, he received a bachelor’s degree in literature from Berea College in Kentucky. From 1903 until 1907, he was a school supervisor in the Philippines.

The University of Chicago conferred upon Woodson a master’s degree in 1908, and he earned his Ph.D. in history from Harvard four years later. He became only the second African-American up until that time to receive a doctorate from Harvard and was the first born to parents who had been slaves.

The first black Harvard Ph.D. was W.E.B. Dubois, the namesake of Mount Hope High School’s predecessor — Dubois High School — which was housed in the same building where Mount Hope’s high school pupils now study.

While in Chicago, Woodson co-founded in 1915 the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History and penned four scholarly books — “The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861,” “A Century of Negro Migration,” “The History of the Negro Church” and “The Negro in Our History.”

The next year, Woodson established the Journal of Negro History. It would be renamed in 2002 as the Journal of African-American History and is now published quarterly by Columbia University.

As Wright explained it, Woodson’s concern was that blacks in America would grow up never knowing their history and the contributions of their people to America’s development.

The 1920s brought Woodson back to the Mountain State as dean of what was then predominantly black West Virginia State College in Institute. In 1926, he single-handedly pioneered the celebration of what started out as Negro History Week, the second week in February.

“People wonder why February was picked as Black History Month,” Wright noted. “It was chosen for two reasons. The birthdays of two prominent people are in that month — Frederick Douglass, the black orator, abolitionist and writer, and President Abraham Lincoln.”

Wright said Woodson’s most cherished ambition was his six-volume Encyclopedia Africana. It was never finished due to his death April 3, 1950.

Woodson was buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Md., and his home was designated as a national historic site. In addition, a statue of him still stands in Huntington.


Fayette County’s unofficial historian laureate also proudly noted his county elected West Virginia’s first three black legislators to the Capitol.

“A great many blacks poured into Fayette County for coal mining jobs in the 1870s,” Wright observed.

“As late as 1920, the county’s black population was 18 percent. It was second only to McDowell County’s black percentage of the population in 1900. What’s unique about West Virginia is that blacks could vote and hold office here, unlike other states around us.”

Christopher H. Payne, the first such notable, was a Republican newspaper publisher from Montgomery. He was elected in 1896 to one term in the Legislature and promptly became active in getting the state to offer more help to blacks for college training. Payne also pushed hard for funding for what was then West Virginia State College.

The publisher of West Virginia Enterprise, The Pioneer and The Mountain Eagle newspapers was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 as American consul general to the Danish West Indies (now the American Virgin Islands). He was later elected judge advocate of the islands and remained there until his death in 1925.

James Ellis was born in Augusta County, Va., in 1870. He received his law degree from Howard in 1898 and opened a law practice in Mount Hope in 1900.

Ellis was elected to the Legislature in 1902, 1906 and 1908, and Wright said he remains the only African-American to this day to serve multiple terms for Fayette County.

Ellis went on to become a state and national spokes-man for the Republican Party until his death near Greentown in the mid-1950s after being hit by a car.

Montgomery native How-ard H. Railey was born into poverty in Virginia in 1867 but improved his lot through education. He taught school in Fayette County, graduated from West Virginia State College and served on the county Board of Examiners and School Book Board before being sent to Charleston by voters in 1904.

During his single term in office, Railey promoted a bill to establish a hospital for “the colored insane.” He later served as field agent and superintendent of the Colored Orphans Home until 1933.

With other counties following Fayette’s lead by this time, a black coal miner from Kimberly named John V. Coleman was elected to the Legislature in 1918.

In addition, Lucile Meadows, a Fayetteville teach-er, was appointed in late 1990 to serve out the remainder of John Hatcher’s term in the House of Delegates after he resigned to become a circuit judge.

A black Harlem Heights minister would later serve out the last few months of her term when Meadows moved to the state Ethics Commission.

— E-mail: mhill@register-herald.com

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