It’s June 20, which means it’s West Virginia Day, marking the anniversary of official statehood in 1863. The Mountain State is 156.
A lot has changed, although some idealistic conflicts never really go away. For instance, before the state was formed, one of the schisms between East and West was that Westerners believed in state government providing public education, while Easterners did not. That was a long time ago, and education looked a lot different, but it’s no small irony that the Legislature is in special session right now debating whether to take public funds and divert them to private, charter and homeschooling options while others argue for more investment in public schools. Same as it ever was?
That was only one of a host of bones to be picked between the Eastern and Western parts of Virginia. Of course, the big divide was the Civil War, which eventually caused West Virginia to break away and form its own state, and the Mountain State has the distinction of being the only new state formed because of this conflict (Nevada was granted statehood in 1864, but not in direct correlation with the war). This was due in no small part to Virginia’s secession from the Union and no longer having a recognized state government.
None of this means that West Virginia was an icon of abolitionism. As historians will note, about a third of what became West Virginia wanted to secede and join the Confederacy, and some historians say nearly 18,000 West Virginians fought for the South (conventional history had placed that number at around 7,000 before more recent findings). An early draft of the state’s constitution didn’t allow blacks, free or enslaved, to live in the state. That provision didn’t pass muster. In a state that’s mostly white, though, race relations remain a dicey issue today.
West Virginia’s history is marked mainly by the progress of industry, coal especially. The coal towns that sprang up and decades later faded away, the fights (sometimes violent, as in the case of Blair Mountain) between workers and coal bosses, the mass casualties that have resulted from extraction and construction are all woven into the state’s backdrop and foreground.
But there are other things that are uniquely West Virginian: the state’s vast natural beauty and outdoor tourism, the music that has developed and flourished over generations (can you name four friends at random without finding at least one who plays multiple stringed instruments?), the food (pepperoni rolls vs. hot dog with mustard, onions, sauce and slaw could easily be this state’s “The Beatles or Elvis?” debate) and, of course, the fierce pride so many have in their roots. That’s to say nothing of West Virginians’ flair for hospitality.
There are a lot of things that not only make the Mountain State great, but, more importantly, home. So happy birthday, West Virginia. Here’s to another 156.