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Juneteenth precedes Sesquicentennial

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia is the only state to secede from a Confederate state and one of only two states officially formed during the Civil War, two facts which will be well touted during next week's Sesquicentennial celebration.

But the issue of slavery, one of the biggest factors in West Virginia's formation, will not be prominently featured during the Sesquicentennial.

So the Tuesday Morning Group, a church-based coalition in Charleston, is staging "The Black Presence in West Virginia," four days of events to occur before and in collaboration with the Sesquicentennial.

"The issue of slavery and the black presence of the state had been overlooked in the Sesquicentennial. We did not take that as an insult; we took that as an opportunity to help in the visibility," said the Rev. Ron English, the event organizer. "There was a lot of Civil War re-enactment, a lot of attention to Lincoln, but we thought that lynchpin was missing."

The four days of events will culminateWednesday, June 19, in a celebration of Juneteenth at the First Baptist Church of Charleston. Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially freed the slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, it took more than two years for most slaves to feel any actual changes. On June 19, 1865, 2,000 Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation and actually free the state's slaves.

Juneteenth, a combination of June and nineteenth, celebrates that day and is a recognized as a holiday in many states.

English pointed out there was a similar wait of about two years between West Virginia's achieving statehood on June 20, 1863, and slavery's official abolition in the state Feb. 3, 1865.

The events will begin Sunday with a program at the Capitol's Culture Center. There will be a presentation on the Hawk's Nest disaster, when hundreds of black workers died in the 1930s after digging a tunnel through pure silica and breathing the dust with no protection. There also will be music, poetry, a presentation on the John Henry folk legend and a keynote speech from David Fryson, chief diversity officer at West Virginia University.

On Monday, the Rev. Matthew Watts will moderate a program and discussion on "The Black Presence in Politics for Social Change" at Mary C. Snow Westside Elementary. There will be presentations on statehood, civil rights and Booker T. Washington and his legacy of education and self-help.

The topic on Tuesday will be education, and there will be a number of presentations, including one by Charles Ledbetter, a retired history professor at West Virginia State University. Ledbetter wrote a history of how West Virginia State College (which became WVSU) played a role as a predecessor to the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Ledbetter wrote that in 1939 WVSC was the first of six historically black colleges to establish an aeronautics program, predating the Tuskegee Institute and others.

WVSC was selected in part because it was next to Charleston's municipal airport at the time, Wertz Field.

In 1942, Union Carbide bought land near WVSC to build a chemical plant, and the city closed Wertz Field and moved the airport.

That summer, the federal government canceled pilot training programs at all six historically black colleges and consolidated all those programs at Tuskegee Air Field in Alabama.

English said the state Division of Culture and History, which is planning the Sesquicentennial, has been very supportive of the supplemental events and he hopes that the events will have a lasting impact.

"In a state where we have 3.5 percent African-Americans, it is easy to be in a situation of marginal visibility. We've seen that happen over and over again as groups convene that affect our lives politically, educationally, culturally," English said. "This is another way of establishing that presence that hopefully will have a longer term effect."

For information on "The Black Presence in West Virginia," see: http://www.wvculture.org/wv150/juneteenth.html.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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