Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a series by Larry L. Rowe on the history of slavery and the salt industry in the Kanawha Valley before the Civil War, and Booker T. Washington’s boyhood heroes after the war.
The ideas of liberty and equality were the inspiration for establishment of our national republic, the first to succeed since Julius Caesar ended the Roman Republic nearly 2,000 years ago.
But the first story of the nation’s history for more than 70 million Americans today is the story of their ancestors’ slavery. The idea of white superiority as a majority belief was not overturned until the late 20th century by television journalists showing the torture and terror wreaked on southern parents marching and protesting for the right to vote and for better schools for their children.
In the Kanawha Valley, leading industrialists readily used Virginia slavery for work production in their new salt factories and coal mines. Slaves were forced into the industry to make barrels and flatboats for shipping. They worked in coal mines to provide fuel to the blazing furnaces to boil off water from the strong brine pumped up hundreds of feet to the factory boiling pans.
Half of Virginians forced into the industry were permanent residents, and half were leased for a year at a time, taken away from families and only allowed to visit home one week a year during the Christmas holiday.
Booker T. Washington’s stepfather was leased to work in the salt industry before the Civil War. He would visit at Christmas and then leave for another year.
Lingering vestiges of the idea of white superiority remind us of dark days when the ideas of equality and freedom did not apply to African Americans. There have been many changes, and the great ideas of the republic now apply to most all citizens, who are now in the main institutions of American life. Fewer people are subjected to deprivation of liberty and equality, but citizens continue to struggle with racism and gender, ethnic and religious differences that provide continuing exceptions to the American Dream.
Appalachian people are subjected to geographic-based culture discrimination. They are dismissed as “hillbillies” and “rednecks,” especially by some people in urban and coastal areas. Hillbillies are one of the few groups in American life who can be openly subjected to prejudice. People who live in the mountains should be proud of their frontier culture and values that help sustain the nation’s great ideas of liberty and equality in a diverse culture and economy that is not recognized in the sameness of the dominant suburban culture.
Booker T. Washington lived his formative years with the remarkable Ruffner family. They turned a wilderness in western Virginia into an industrial and population center for salt and coal industries in the Kanawha Valley, making Charleston the state capital and the center of new industries of coal, timber, oil, natural gas and later, chemicals.
That population center would expand the borders of the new state of West Virginia, to include southern counties that would later define the state for its first 150 years as a “coal state.” Absent such an important population center, it is likely that the Kanawha River would have been the natural southern border of a small state with Wheeling as its capital and the center of its commercial and political life.
The Ruffners and other Kanawha salt producers were among the earliest major industrialists in America. They were the first true industrialists on the western frontier. But they were called “salt makers.” The terms “industrialist” and “factory” were not used because the concepts of modern industries and factories were not developed so early in the 19th century.
The mechanical revolution was just getting started decades before it would evolve into the Industrial Revolution, starting urbanization, mass production and new markets, all vastly changing American life. The largest factory in New England in 1820 employed about 350 workers, when five years earlier in Malden, there were more than 50 furnaces blazing day and night producing millions of pounds of salt in factories called “works,” again, a term used before the concepts of industry and factories were widely known.
The Ruffner family invented modern deep-well drilling for America. They laid out their own town, helped establish the area’s first Presbyterian churches, and the first academy school. They famously supported universal, free public schools funded by property taxes, and helped create a new state. No other family is known for such success in so many endeavors in the 19th century.
But all of the business and social success of the family was made possible only by the ready exploitation of the forced labor of enslaved Virginians. After slavery, with the help of Booker’s mother, Jane Ferguson, and freed family friends, the Ruffners became champions for the civil rights of all freed people.
This series is about Virginia slavery in America and a young boy in Malden who named himself Booker T. Washington. The series reveals for the first time that his career path was set by his observation of inspirational boyhood heroes he observed struggling, with success, honor and courage, to build a black middle-class in his hometown for future generations.
He believed that future generations of African Americans could only be equal in America if they adopted middle-class values for self-sacrifice and self-determination to improve the lives of their children and grandchildren. He thought people became middle class when they dedicated their lives to helping future generations and that their sacrifice would open the door for all people to achieve their dreams in life, when they had the will, work ethic and talent to make their dreams come true.
He observed the ideas of his heroes for hard work, education, equal opportunity, integration and self-determination. He turned those ideas into a gospel for what today we would call the “American Dream,” a term that would not be coined until a generation after his death in 1915.