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Black and white

MOATSTOWN — Cemeteries stand like sentries, peering down on this town. On each rise of the hilly terrain, markers — some weathered, some still fresh with hurt and the gloss of new granite — trace their ghostly pattern.

“This place is death valley,” said Harmon Moats, as he walked the grassy expanse beside Moats Chapel.

It’s true that gravestones far outnumber the residents left in this nook in the Pendleton County mountains.

And it’s true that most of those remaining can look back on middle age.

But there’s a picture on Moats’ wall. One with young faces colored black and white and many shades in between, staring out from the confines of tattered edges. They tell of a different time in Moatstown, a time of unique circumstance — a time that’s still evident in the blue of Harmon Moats’ eyes.

The intermingling

To say that 1900s Moatstown was a living laboratory, a testament to the idea that the races could peacefully co-exist would be an overstatement — but not by much.

“What made it so livable, I guess, is that so many of the white people here were intermingled with the blacks,” Moats said.

Moats’ cousin, William Oliver Lindsay, used Census reports and old-fashioned genealogy research to chronicle Moatstown and the black population of the surrounding area.

A glance through his research shows a vast mix of BM, BF, WM, WF, MM and MF codes, meaning black, white or mulatto followed by male or female.

The amount of racial mixing is surprising, considering the time period: pre-emancipation to well into the 1900s and the heart of segregation.

The first Moats family settlers were white, said Lindsay, 74, who now lives in Ronceverte. He traced the introduction of African blood into the Moats line with the 1828 birth of a mulatto child to a white woman. While the birth likely caused a stir at the time, it set the stage for the intricate mixing of races that would carry on for years to come.

Some in the Moats line did not intermingle, Lindsay said, meaning there are Moats families living in the area today without a drop of African blood.

However, he said it’s also highly likely that many people — Moats or other — with history in the Pendleton, Pocahontas and Greenbrier county areas have some African blood in their veins as a result of the early intermingling — whether they know it or not.

Lost in a memory

Harmon Moats, 75, joined the Navy as a young man. He entered the service as black and was discharged as white.

It made no matter to him. He had German ancestry. Some of his grandparents and aunts still spoke German. His father was considered black, but he was light enough to drink beer in a bar in Franklin in the 1930s.

“But if his cousins came in — they were a little darker — they couldn’t stay,” Moats said.

In his youth, he was one of about 100 children who lived and attended school and church in Moatstown, relatively free of the racial tension that gripped the rest of the nation.

The pleasant memories of a Moatstown childhood carried on through the tumultuous 1960s, the time of Anita Moats’ early youth.

“Sunday was the big day,” recalled Anita, 45, who now lives in Franklin. “After church, you went to somebody’s house, and you ate all day long ... There was softball games and horseshoes and reminiscing, cooking and eating ... a lot of eating.”

She calls Harmon Moats ‘uncle,’ although he’s not her real uncle. ‘Uncle’ is a term of respect, she explained, and besides “we’re all related” somehow, she said.

Anita has wavy, dark hair and lightly shaded skin. A stranger would be hard-pressed to pinpoint her ancestry at a glance.

She is the face of Moatstown — or, more rightly, the vanishing face.

“Nobody’s there much anymore,” she said of her hometown. “You gotta remember, most of the old folks all went to glory by now. The rest of us just grew up and left.”

On the third Sunday in August, the town has a reunion. The church and the old school house overflow with nostalgia, music and Moatses.

The lack of opportunity that befell Moatstown and hundreds of other rural West Virginia communities led people like Harmon Moats away. After his time in the Navy, he spent decades living in New York City. He raised his four kids there. But he came home to retire in the place of his memories.

“I get on my four-wheeler ...,” he gazed up toward the forested hills that shelter the town. “And I just get lost in there.”

To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.


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