McDowell County is the most Southern County in West Virginia, bordering southwest Virginia. Blacks began migrating into the County when railroads came to the County, on or about 1895. The railroads provided mass transportation of coal to eastern and mid western parts of the nation. This new industry created jobs requiring hard labor coupled with low skills. Because of the lack of suitable housing, coal companies built houses for its employees. The grouping of these houses was called “coal camps”.
The population increased rapidly, going from 7,300 in 1896 to over 98,000 in 1950.
The Black population increased greatly during this period; and its Black population was the highest of any County in the State.
Along with the influx of Black miners, Black professionals soon followed to serve the community. They included Medical Doctors, Nurses, Dentists, Pharmacists, School Teachers and School Administrators. This professional class served the entire population, except of course, the educational sector.
Coal mining soon became the main industry, employing thousands of employees, with close to 35% being Black. The coal companies were segregated and several mines’ production staff were nearly all Black. It should be noted that these mines were duly recognized as being more efficient than other mines.
Black policy makers were included in all phases of civic life, including the union representing the coal miners.
The County once boasted 4 separate Black High Schools, more than any other County in the State. Its graduates have distinguished themselves in various professions throughout the nation and exhibit great pride in their home County, affectionately referred to as “The Patch”.
Also included in the Black migration were gamblers, women of ill repute and others of similar ilk. A small area, approximately 6/7 acres, commonly called “Cinder Bottom” was where the above-named, engaged in their individual professions.
Coal is no longer “King” and the population has sunken below 18,000 and is ranked among the poorest counties in the nation.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 West Virginia Black Heritage Festival has been canceled but that doesn't mean we're taking a break!