Migration of African Americans to West Virginia: Hinton Depot; Hinton, WV

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In the years before coal, West Virginia’s economy was based primarily on subsistence farming and timber harvesting. Without big industry, the region was sparsely populated and the workforce was small. During the late 1800s, the construction of railroads through southern West Virginia created the need for a much larger workforce. Recruitment by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company and others brought thousands of African Americans to build and maintain their railroads. As the railroads opened up the large coal fields of Central Appalachia, even more African Americans came to fill hundreds of coal mining jobs.

For nearly sixty years, 1870 to 1930, African Americans migrated to West Virginia through major rail centers like Hinton, WV. They came in search of jobs as well as economic and political opportunities denied them in other states. They also came to escape Jim Crow laws that segregated them and denied them voting rights. They came because West Virginia provided better education opportunities for their children.

In 1870, there were nearly 18,000 African Americans living in West Virginia. By 1910, the black population had grown to over 64,000 residents and eventually reached a high of 115,000. Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s. During these years, African Americans suffered from high unemployment and hard times in West Virginia. With the advent of World War II, new technologies and mechanization transformed the coal industry. These technologies doubled coal production and vastly cut the need for manpower. Coal companies were also reluctant to train and use black workers to operate the new machinery. This led to substantial layoffs of black coal miners. The result of these events stimulated a massive out-migration by African Americans in the post-war years

Between 1930 and 1980, the number of African-American coal miners fell from 22,000 to less than 1,500. By the end of the 20th century, black miners had dropped to less than three percent of West Virginia’s work force. African Americans left West Virginia for the same reasons they came almost 150 years earlier, to find better jobs and economic opportunities elsewhere.

Last updated: March 21, 2017

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