“I want to wake up in the morning where the Rhododendron grows, where the sun come a-peeking into where I’m a sleeping and the songbird says hello.” (West Virginia Camp Song)
As an African American in and from West Virginia, I have always been proud of the legacy of our great state in its refusal to secede from the Union with the rest of Virginia at the onset of the Civil War. The Confederacy, at its roots, stood for the proposition that the enslavement of human beings was a right of the state.
Virginia was the heart and capitol of the Confederacy. Through the life of the Confederate nation there were three capitols, the first in Montgomery, Alabama, but the additional two were both in Virginia — Danville for eight days at the end of the war, and Richmond for most of the war. Arguably, there was not a more important state to the Confederacy than Virginia.
West Virginia was never a part of the Confederacy and, even though there was some private support for the South, West Virginia statehood revealed the area’s institutional dedication to the Union. This makes West Virginians who display the Confederate flag either very ignorant or very malevolent. But for the Union prevailing in the Civil War, there would be no state of West Virginia, and being part of the Union is inextricably tied to the state’s identity.
Virginia, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is second only to Georgia in the number of Confederate monuments — 110 in Virginia verses 114 for Georgia. The state legislature of Virginia passed a law in April 2020 that allows localities to remove Confederate monuments. Before this legislation, it was unlawful for Virginia local governments to remove monuments commemorating a Confederate nation devoted to slavery.
Since passage of the law, many Virginia localities, including Richmond, have removed Confederate monuments from the public square. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam established a commission to recommend a replacement for Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue in the U.S. Capitol and to consider other removal issues.
In West Virginia there are facilities named after and monuments to commemorate Confederate General Stonewall Jackson throughout the state. Jackson lived in the Clarksburg area before the formation of West Virginia and advocated sending troops to recapture the area during the war. He was devoted to the Confederacy.
Gov. Jim Justice has indicated that the subject of the removal of Confederate monuments in West Virginia is a legislative one and “not my issue.” Let that sink in for a moment. While the governor of Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy, is providing leadership on this most important issue of fundamental fairness, the governor of the state of West Virginia, the state that was formed because of its refusal to secede from the Union, stands impotent.
Justice’s reticence to provide leadership may be because of his close relationship with President Donald Trump, whose racism is now incontrovertible. Perhaps Gov. Justice’s own racial insensitivity as well as his ownership of the majestic Greenbrier resort, a throwback to the plantations of Southern aristocracy, play a part in his refusal to lead or even participate in this issue related to the Confederacy.
Since there is a leadership void from the seat of the state government, local West Virginia entities are left to fend for themselves. For instance, the Kanawha County Board of Education voted to remove the name of Stonewall Jackson from the middle school on Charleston’s West Side. Although the board agreed to a name change, they just could not bring themselves to rename the school with the largest African American attendance in West Virginia after a person of color and settled for the amorphous West Side Middle School.
This decision is reminiscent of a jest by the great Rev. Vernon Johns, former Pastor of Charleston’s historic First Baptist Church and forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama. Johns once said that African Americans in West Virginia were “infinitely ahead of the state from which they broke away” because “West Virginia was originally constituted by white people who could almost do the right thing.”
Unfortunately, many localities in West Virginia, unlike the Kanawha County school board, cannot even “almost do the right thing.” For instance, when West Virginia Black History Festival Chairman James Griffin was speaking before the Harrison County Commission in favor of the removal of the Stonewall Jackson memorial in Clarksburg, press reports indicate that several people who were in virtual attendance hijacked his allotted time. Griffith apparently was continuously interrupted by explicit rap songs played through the audio feed. The “n-word” was reported to be clearly broadcast to virtual attendees. The Harrison County Commission failed to take a vote on this important issue.
I have always been proud to “wake up where the Rhododendrons grow.”
However, lately I have been wondering whether reunification with Virginia, formerly the heart of the Confederacy, would be advantageous to people of color in West Virginia. While the state of Virginia is affirmatively distancing itself from its Confederate roots, West Virginia, under the inaction of Gov. Justice, is acting as if it had joined the Confederacy.