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Exhibit explores slavery's presence in Greenbrier County's past

LEWISBURG — A state that split from Virginia rather than secede and lacked the climate and topography to support the plantation crops of the Deep South once was home to pervasive slavery.

The number of enslaved people toiling in what is now West Virginia peaked at 20,428 in 1850, according to census data. Slaves could be found in 54 of the state’s 55 counties, the sole exception being McDowell.

The only county far enough east to include a section of the Shenandoah Valley and its planters’ estates, Jefferson, had the highest slave population with 4,341. Kanawha, with its labor-intensive salt-making industry, was next at 3,140. Among five other counties in which enslaved people made up more than 10% of the total population was Greenbrier, where 1,525 slaves were counted during the 1860 census.

“They built the wealth of this county,” said Toni Ogden, curator and educational director of the Greenbrier Historical Society’s North House Museum in Lewisburg, “but few people today are aware of it. We thought it was about time to include enslaved people in the history of Greenbrier County and bring their story to light.”

“Echoes of Slavery in Greenbrier County,” a semi-permanent exhibit, opened in the North House Museum in early March.

“We had a lovely opening that drew a big crowd,” Ogden said. Beverly White, Lewisburg’s first African-American mayor, and other locals led a discussion on slavery and its impact through reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the civil rights struggle and beyond.

Then the coronavirus pandemic swept into the state, and the exhibit was closed for months, although an all-inclusive online version has been posted on the North House Museum’s website. The exhibit in the museum is now open again from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday to visitors wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.

Slavery was a fact of life in Greenbrier County since before the start of the Revolutionary War. Tax records indicate that in 1775, 10 slaves were owned by some of the 56 pioneer families attempting to carve out farmsteads in the Muddy and Sinking creek valleys on land claimed by American Indians.

While most slaveholders in the county owned no more than five slaves, some larger farm operators relied on the labor of more than 100 enslaved people, according to the exhibit. Slaveholders included those who opposed secession. “William Rucker, a Unionist, had 98 slaves,” Ogden said.

While many enslaved people planted and harvested crops and tended to livestock, others made bricks, cut timber and built homes and outbuildings. Others worked inside homes and businesses, where they cleaned, cooked, served meals, cared for owners’ children, laundered and sewed clothes and performed other domestic chores.

Mineral spring resorts that took shape in the county — the 19th century spa at White Sulphur Springs that later became The Greenbrier is an example — also relied heavily on slave labor. In 1831, the resort’s real estate assets were appraised at $100,000, while its slaves were valued at $56,000, according to author and historian Cicero Fain.

“The Greenbrier was run on slave labor until the Civil War,” said Ogden.

Among items on display at the exhibit is a large reproduction of an 1838 oil painting by German portrait artist Christian Friedrich Mayr titled “Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs,” which shows resort slaves and the slaves of guests dancing, laughing and conversing during a wedding celebration.

“At that time, African Americans were generally depicted in a cartoonish style” by white illustrators, Ogden said. “But Mayr saw individuals — he saw people — and painted them in a way that showed their differences and captured the moment.”

Other scenes of slavery in Greenbrier County were much more chilling. An account of an early January encounter with a group of slaves on the outskirts of Lewisburg by Greenbrier County resident and Marietta College student Calvin Hogshead is also on display.

“On a bitter cold morning, I met a group of negroes, 30 or 40 in number, remarkably ragged and destitute of clothing. One little boy particularly excited my sympathy. He was some distance behind the others, not being able to keep up with the rest. Although he was shivering with cold and crying, the driver was pushing him up in a trot to overtake the main gang. All of them looked as if they were half frozen.”

Also displayed are newspaper advertisements offering rewards for the return of runaway slaves; an auction of “valuable negroes and other personal property,” including cattle, sheep, hogs and wagons; and an offer by a Frankfort man to “pay the highest cash prices for 300 young negroes.”

The exhibit makes reference to the case of Reuben, a slave owned by John Withrow of Lewisburg, who was tried for attempted insurrection in May 1861.

According to a transcript of his brief trial, he was accused of hiding firearms along with several other slaves and planning to use them to take control of Lewisburg after most men in town left to join Confederate army units.

“I will be damned if any white man shall be master over me,” Reuben reportedly told another slave, before adding that with the guns and ammunition that had been hidden, they would have enough firepower to “take Lewisburg.”

Withrow testified that he found four pistols and a quantity of ammunition in a room assigned to a slave other than Reuben. The enslaved man was found guilty by a white judge and hanged June 28, 1861.

While slaveholders were a distinct minority among white residents of what would become West Virginia, their access to forced labor allowed them to readily widen the gap in wealth separating them from non-slaveholders. While less than 7% of West Virginians owned slaves on the eve of the Civil War, they owned nearly 40% of the land and an even higher percentage of personal property wealth.

Those who didn’t own slaves benefited from local economies supported by businesses made viable through slave labor, according to Ogden.

While slave ownership in West Virginia was relatively low — especially when compared to pre-war Virginia, where nearly 500,000 slaves could be found in 1860 — there was also little resistance to the practice.

According to Underground Railroad historian and former Duquesne University professor William Switala, there was no organized antislavery movement in what would become West Virginia before the war broke out, and there were few active abolitionists.

“Echoes of Slavery” transitions from the end of slavery into Greenbrier County’s experiences with Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement before bringing visitors back to the present.

The response to the exhibit?

“So far, it’s been pretty tremendous,” Ogden said. “People are astonished to learn what happened here and are riveted to what they see in the exhibit,” although a few visitors are uncomfortable with confronting the past.

“Slavery is something we have to look at and deal with if we’re to move on,” she said. “With the events that are going on nationally, this seems like a good time to be having this discussion.”

“Echoes of Slavery” was made possible with a grant from the Daywood Foundation.

Virus, school questions pose unique challenges to grandfamilies

Fifty-one-year-old Nancy Cook soon will be faced with a choice — send her grandchildren back to school this fall, opening the door to catch the novel coronavirus, or keep them home and risk them falling behind academically.

Cook, of Lincoln County, is raising two of her grandchildren and recently battled breast cancer. Her husband is 61 and underwent open heart surgery last year.

Cook has been caring for her grandson, 8, and granddaughter, 7, for about three years. She said her grandson struggles in school and receives modified curriculum, and the coronavirus shutdown put additional stress on the family.

“When school shut down, that left it to me to try to get him to get his work done, to motivate him, to want to do his work and in his eyes, MawMaw knows nothing,” Cook said. “He doesn’t like to listen to MawMaw when it comes to reading and writing and all that, because MawMaw doesn’t know anything like the teachers do. So that was a challenge in itself.”

Cook isn’t alone. In 2017, about 41,482 children or 10.9% of the total in West Virginia lived in homes where householders were grandparents, according to West Virginia State University’s Healthy Grandfamilies program.

Now, the number is likely higher, said Bonnie Dunn, Healthy Grandfamilies co-director.

“West Virginia is second in the nation in the percentage of children raised by grandparents, but actually we believe we’re probably number one or tied,” she said. “Since this program started and we are now in all 55 counties of the state, the feedback we’re receiving from the county coalitions, it’s got to be higher.”

Healthy Grandfamilies is designed as a series of discussion sessions where grandparents can interact with others like them and are provided resources on relevant topics such as communication and legal issues — at least, until COVID-19 hit, Dunn said.

About 30 counties were actively participating in local programming with their grandfamilies as the virus began to shut down the state.

The technology gap

“They’ve been staying in touch with them by phone. I’ve got a couple counties who are trying to do Zoom meetings, but with a lack of broadband, it’s hard,” Dunn said. “Another thing that came out while school was in session, we started having grandparents call in, and they had no devices. They had no laptops, iPads, nothing, particularly the elementary-age children, because a lot of the counties are furnishing them at the middle school level.”

Dunn said she’s been in contact with grandfamilies raising several children. When schools closed, they were left with no or few devices and unable to access reliable internet.

In Harrison County, where about half the county’s grandparents cared for at least one grandchild in 2015, Dunn said a grandmother raising five grandchildren had no other option but to pack up the kids each day to drive to a parked school bus with WiFi, where they’d each take turns on her iPhone completing their school work.

“Now that is unacceptable,” Dunn said.

Those with computers, internet access and support at home might have excelled during the shutdown, leaving children even further behind.

Cook said she purchased a laptop for her grandchildren to do their school work in March, and the family has Wi-Fi connection at their home.

In some counties, public school districts are combatting the issue by providing devices for every student or implementing technology loaner programs.

In Cabell County, the third-largest school district in the state, each student will receive an Apple device, regardless of whether they choose in-person or virtual learning.

Assistant Superintendent Kelly Watts said the county was set to begin the technology portion of the Healthy Grandfamilies initiative before the coronavirus drove people inside their homes. It will provide assistance to those who need it as the year progresses.

“We’ll be putting up videos for parent support. We’ll be building a helpline, especially when our social workers get back to work. When everybody gets back in, our counselors, we will be reaching out to make sure they have the support they need,” Watts said. “We will look at starting the courses back once we get school figured out, or if we can even start them virtually.”

Heading back to school

While there is no easy way to keep track of just how many grandparents are raising their grandchildren, Cabell officials asked known grandfamilies for their thoughts on the return to school. Keith Thomas, coordinator of student support in the county and local coordinator for the Healthy Grandfamilies program, said responses were mixed.

“A majority wanted the kids back in school five days a week,” he said. “A lot of them had concerns since they are elderly, bringing sickness home from the schools, but a majority of them want kids back in schools.”

Sue Burton, who heads up Lincoln County’s local Healthy Grandfamilies program, is a grandparent who has raised two grandchildren herself and is in contact with about 50 families in the same boat.

“Most of the grandparents say, ‘I want to send them to school,’” Burton said.

“’They need to go to school, because we feel like they will learn better at school,’ because some of the grandparents don’t have the ability to help them at home,” Burton said. “But then they have the fear — ‘I’m 70 years old and I’ve got grandkids to raise.’”

Though Cook and her husband both are at higher risk due to pre-existing conditions, she said her grandchildren require the discipline and structure only traditional schooling can offer.

“The biggest obstacle I’m having without being in school is my grandson doesn’t have that one-on-one with teachers that can get his attention and get him to do what he is supposed to do,” she said.

Obstacles faced and support offered

A little more than 20% of grandparents raising grandchildren in the Mountain State live in poverty. The pandemic has worsened their plight.

“In our pilot study for three years, we also uncovered the fact that 100% of our grandfamilies in that pilot presented with at least one chronic illness. So we’ve got aging grandparents who have a chronic condition who are now having the children 24/7 because of COVID,” Dunn said. “Now, they’re feeding the children three meals a day. I’ve been thinking about utilities, with the heat we’ve had, with somebody in the house now all day every day, it changes the food bill; it impacts everything.”

Healthy Grandfamilies is sending Walmart or grocery store gift cards to grandparents to supplement their food costs or to be used on other needs.

“One grandparent bought her grandson his first bicycle because she said he needed to get out of the house. He needed physical activity, so she used that gift card to buy a bike,” Dunn said. “Another one was finally able to buy new bedding for the new grandbabies. So these resources are far-reaching beyond the food, clothing and shelter kind of thing.”

Burton said she’s also been providing families with $25 gas cards to assist in transportation to pick up free meals from the school system.

“We also have some grandparents who cannot drive, so we go to the house and take it to them, so we’re making sure they get the food,” she said.

The initiative is partly funded by the state, recently receiving additional money to expand to all 55 counties. Grandfamilies keep thousands of children from entering the already flooded foster care system in West Virginia, and Burton said they need more help.

“They should be helping these grandparents more than they are helping,” she said. “If you think of all the money that the state is saving on foster programs, this keeps those kids from going into foster programs, so these grandparents should be helped financially.”

For Cook, the isolation that ricocheted from the pandemic has been the most difficult, even above financial issues.

“We need an outlet,” Cook said. “This is a different age that we are dealing with, a different century, a whole new way of learning, and being a grandparent, you know you’re supposed to be the one to spoil and send them home. Now you have to be the parent, the teacher, everything you were as a parent, but now you’re much older.

“That is something that I wish we could improve on, because I know I’m not the only one. There are at least three in my family that are raising grandkids. I realize with the pandemic it’s hard to get together, but I think it would be vital to a lot of people.”

Thomas said the open communication, grandparents having adult conversations with one another, was one of the most beneficial parts of the Grandfamilies program in Cabell.

Burton encouraged grandparents who need assistance now — whether it be legal aid, technology resources, financial help — to contact their local Healthy Grandfamilies coordinator.

“I probably have 50 grandfamilies that I’m helping right now through this, and I know there are many, many more out there,” she said. “My heart is really in it, because I’m one of them.”

Both sides say progress made in talks on pandemic relief

WASHINGTON — Negotiations between top White House officials and congressional Democrats on coronavirus relief legislation showed signs of progress on Saturday, after days of stalemate that caused 30 million Americans to lose emergency unemployment benefits.

Emerging from a three-hour meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said they had had the most productive discussion to date, although they had not yet struck a deal.

“It was the best discussion we’ve had so far, and I’d call it progress but a ways to go,” Schumer said.

He said aides would be meeting Sunday to go over details, and the principals would meet again Monday.

Mnuchin and Meadows agreed as they addressed reporters at the Capitol a short time later.

“It’s time to make a deal,” Meadows said. “And if we’re going to be able to succeed in this it’s taking what started as probably the first day of a good foundation, productive discussions and building upon those until we reach an agreement hopefully in the next couple of days.”

Meadows added, “There are still substantial differences but we did make good progress.”

It was a striking change of tone from Friday, when Meadows and Pelosi exchanged harsh public criticism about who was to blame for the expiration of $600 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits at a time of great economic uncertainty.

Those benefits, which Congress approved in March, expired on Friday.

White House officials have been trying to get Democrats to agree to a short-term fix that would extend the uemployment benefits and address a handful of other items such as continuing a moratorium on evictions that also recently expired.

Democrats, whose starting point is a $3 trillion bill the House passed in May, have been holding out for a more comprehensive response that would address the many economic and health care needs besetting the nation.

Mnuchin said Saturday that even as the two sides were finding areas of agreement on policy, there was still disagreement on the best way to move forward legislatively.

“They’ve made clear that there’s a desire on their part to do an entire package; we’ve made clear that we are willing to deal with the short-term issues, pass something quickly, and come back to the larger issues,” Mnuchin said. “So we’re at an impasse on that.”

Nevertheless the positive comments after the meeting suggested that the two sides might finally be heading toward a deal, after four straight days of meetings this past week produced nothing but angry rhetoric.

Recent polling has shown voters increasingly disgusted with Congress, which has not acted since spring even as the coronavirus his been spiking and the economic recovery has stalled. More than 150,000 Americans have died.

“Millions are on the verge of eviction. People need resources in order to meet the needs of their families,” Pelosi said. “This is not a usual discussion, because the urgency is so great.”

Mnuchin said the two sides agreed on the need to extend unemployment insurance and the eviction moratorium and provide money for schools and small businesses. Vast differences remain, though, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s demand for a liability shield for businesses, health care providers and others, and Democrats’ demand for $1 trillion in additional aid to cities and states.

McConnell was home in Kentucky on Saturday and did not participate in the negotiations, which he’s largely left to administration officials. But Meadows and Mnuchin said they were keeping him and Trump closely apprised of developments.

Senate Republican leaders waited until last Monday to release a $1 trillion bill that was their response to the Democrats’ plan, but it immediately encountered resistance from within the Senate GOP conference. The White House quickly abandoned it and began pushing for some kind of short-term fix for the unemployment benefits.

The Republicans have floated a few plans for extending the enhanced unemployment benefits, which come on top of whatever states already offer. Republicans say the $600 weekly payment is so generous it provides a disincentive for people to return to work, though Democrats disagree. One approach that’s attracted GOP support would reduce the benefit to $200 weekly, or a formula that would replace around two-thirds of a worker’s wages before losing their job.

Democrats insist any such approach is insufficient for the need in the country and the fragile state of the economy, which could suffer overall from the evaporation of the benefits that have helped newly unemployed workers pay rent and buy groceries.