The boom-and-bust cycle that to this day marks West Virginia’s economy was set in motion not too many years after the Mountain State’s emergence as a state in 1863, said historian Greg Carroll.
Carroll will present a portrait of the tangled and influential political and social history of the state’s early years in the free lecture “Reconstruction in West Virginia, 1865-1875: A Failure that Led to Future Mistakes,” at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Archives and History Library at the Culture Center in the state Capitol Complex.
The state of West Virginia was formed in 1863 by a Republican elite, but that elite was quickly overwhelmed by a Democratic backlash after the Civil War and then voted out of power by 1870, said Carroll, a retired historian for the West Virginia State Archives for 23 years.
“It was during this period of time that all of the people who created the state of West Virginia — the Republicans who had worked for separation from Virginia, who had dealt with the Lincoln Administration to establish the new state of West Virginia, by 1870 and 1872 — all of these people had been voted out.”
The result was a “reactionary return” to a leadership that resulted in the eventual takeover of the state’s natural resources by out-of-state interests, said Carroll. This also led to the effective disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the post-Civil War years and long beyond, said Carroll, a graduate of the University of Texas and Marshall University who has studied Native American and Civil War history in West Virginia.
“We had a burgeoning black population that quickly realized they might as well leave West Virginia because they’re not going to be able to maintain the vote here,” he said.
During the period leading up to about 1880, the die was cast for the state’s future as monied interests “bought most of the state of West Virginia,” Carroll said.
“Using our local judicial processes and our local lawyers that got paid off and helped them out, [they] established a huge extractive series of industries in West Virginia, starting with the salt industry before the war, continuing into the railroad boom from 1863 clear up to the 1880s, then the timber boom,” he said. “And eventually, of course, the establishment of a huge coal empire in West Virginia.”
Carroll said his talk will draw upon the work of some of West Virginia’s most noted historians, including John Alexander Williams, Richard O. Curry and Otis K. Rice. “You have to go back to these great historians to get a lot of these good facts,” he said.
“I know a lot of African-American folks do not know this history and I wish they could hear this first hand because it explains a lot of what developed into the Jim Crow laws from the 1880s clear up to the 1950s,” Carroll said. “It’s very important to realize black voters were basically refused the right to vote clear up until they brought black coal miners into the state during the 1910s, 1920s and the 1930s.”
Monied interests in cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Chicago focused on how they could buy up West Virginia land at the cheapest price, Carroll said, “and how can they establish a labor system in an extractive industry that would pay as little as possible.”
They increased their profits every 10 years, he said, adding “Only by 1910 and 1912, did the West Virginia labor unions in the coal industry begin to fight back.”
Carroll said he hopes to underscore what happened as a result of state residents effectively losing control of their land.
“Which is what West Virginians did very early on, and how that led to a boom-and-bust cycle in the economic system we were faced with, which was both exploitive and in many ways colonial,” he said.
The cycle continues to this day, he said.
“As you can see, we are faced with once again a terrible bust in our major industry of coal because we refuse to diversify our economy,” Carroll said.
The Reconstruction period also set up “a culture of denial,” he said. “We told the black folks we were going to give them the vote and then we denied that vote and we even denied the fact it was our responsibility to create a free and equal culture in West Virginia.”
School segregation had taken hold by 1875-77. “The segregated schools of West Virginia gave all of our African-American citizen a very second-class education compared to the white students,” he said.
Carroll said he will also consider the repeated calls to focus on the state’s heritage, including its coal heritage, which often masks over unpleasant facts.
“It’s repeated over and over again, when in actuality many of these factors are failures,” he said. These include the despoiling of the state’s environment “and a desperate situation in the southern coal fields as the coal mining is dying out.”
So much for the bad news.
As for the good news, Carroll observed: “We also have a very trained and capable work force that I think can project itself into the future if we can begin to diversity our economy and not once again decide the only thing we can do is to frack for natural gas. If the state of West Virginia decides that’s the only way they can make any money, we’re going to be in trouble. Because the same pattern will be in place.”
The Mountain State also has gold in these hills.
“West Virginia has an incredible natural resource in its water, which I think will be more valuable than gas or oil in the next 30 years. Our water could be a way to have a new and totally clean industry,” he said. “And we also know the incredibly beautiful natural environment of West Virginia will be able to draw millions of tourists.”
Patrons may park behind the Culture Center after 5 p.m. for the lecture and enter the building at the back loading dock area. There also is limited handicapped parking available in the new bus turnaround. Visitors parking there should enter at the front of the building. For more information on the Archives and History lecture series, call 304-558-0230.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at