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“An Extensive Celebration”: Emancipation Day and Juneteenth in West Virginia

Posted by Admin.
June 19th, 2021

Blog post by Miriam Cady, PhD, Instruction and Public Services Coordinator, WVRHC

[Language warning: many of the primary source materials used in this post include outdated terminology that readers may find offensive and upsetting.]

Clipping reads, "Emancipation Day In Wheeling will be Observed by Colored People with an Extensive Celebration"
The Wheeling daily intelligencer. [volume] (Wheeling, W. Va.), 21 Sept. 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

In her 1992 speech on the history of Juneteenth, given at the Washington Carver African American Arts Camp, Historian (and WVU alum) Dr. Ancella Bickley spoke of the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation in West Virginia. The Senatorial debate on the admission of West Virginia into the United States made clear that Statehood would not be granted if West Virginia did not make provisions for limiting or the outright abolition of the enslavement of African Americans in West Virginia. Waitman T. Willey introduced an amendment to the West Virginia Constitution, which was eventually approved by West Virginia voters, Congress, and then President Lincoln. The Willey Amendment established a gradual emancipation of some enslaved people in the soon-to-be state of West Virginia, rather than the complete abolition of slavery. Under the Willey Amendment, only enslaved people under the age of 25 would have been emancipated. This means West Virginians were enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation and the State’s adoption of the 13th Amendment on the 3rd of February 1865. Dr. Bickley recalls that enslaved people in West Virginia “may not have been told of their freedom and like Mollie Gabe of Braxton County, continued in servitude until her mother sent her uncle to fetch her”. You can read more about Mollie Gabe in Dr. Bickley’s Appalachian History article.

Excerpt reads, "The children of slaves born within the limits of this State after the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, shall be free; and all slaves within the said State who shall, at the time aforesaid, be under the age of ten years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-one years; and all slaves over ten and under twenty-one, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-five years; and no slave shall be permitted to come into the State for permanent residence therein."
Willey Amendment in the Amended constitution of West Virginia: adopted by the Convention February 18, 1863

Many states, including West Virginia, celebrate Emancipation Day on the 22nd of September, marking the date of President Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation in 1862. Some States, as well as the District of Columbia, celebrate on different days. For example, parts of Kentucky celebrate emancipation on the 8th of August, while D.C. celebrates the freedom of enslaved people in the District on the 16th of April.

Clipping reads, "W VA. Legislature Friday, February 3, 1865. Senate -- Prayer by Rev. Mr. Moffit. Mr. Slack made a report from the committee on Enrolled Bills, which was adopted. Mr. Atkinson, from the committee on Education, reported favorably upon the joint resolution looking to the establishment of Normal Institutions, and the resolution was adopted. Mr. Burley, from the township committee reported adversely upon the resolution favoring township assessors, which report was adopted. On motion of Mr. Brown the joint resolution offered yesterday by Mr. Maxwell, ratifying the constitutional amendment for the abolishment of slavery in the United States was taken up."
The Wheeling daily register. [volume] (Wheeling, W. Va.), 04 Feb. 1865. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Juneteenth marks the day, June 19th, 1865, that all enslaved people in the United States learned of their freedom. It was on this date in Galveston, Texas, that General Gordon Granger affirmed the freedom of at least 250,000 enslaved African Americans in Texas.  Coverage of this event appeared in West Virginia newspapers.

Clipping reads, "The slaves in Texas are very numerous. They were largely increased during the war by coffles sent forward from the other slave States, to make a broader base of independence for the new nation that was to rise on the borders of the Sabine. General Gordon Granger, in command of the United States forces at Galveston, has issued an order in regard to the slaves. He says: "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with the proclamation from the Executive of the United State, "all slaves are free." This involves absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wags. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.""
The Wheeling daily intelligencer. [volume] (Wheeling, W. Va.), 10 July 1865. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

In 2020, Huntington voted to make Juneteenth a city holiday and West Virginia now officially recognizes Juneteenth as a State holiday. Further, the West Virginia Legislature recently passed legislation to declare “February 3 as Freedom Day to memorialize the February 3, 1865 Act by the Legislature that abolished slavery in West Virginia”.

“To come together in a celebration is an act of community” – Ancella Bickley

The celebrations occurring this year are a continuation of years of Emancipation Day celebrations in West Virginia, held as early as 1867. The following newspaper clippings highlight Emancipation Day celebrations held throughout the state in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Train ad reads, "$1.45 Excursion to Gallipolis, Ohio Thursday September 22, 1910 via Kanawha & Michigan Railway on Account of Home-Coming and Emancipation Celebration Hon. Chas. A Cottrill will deliver the address."
The advocate. [volume] (Charleston, W. Va.), 15 Sept. 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Clipping begins, "Celebration will be held at Mt. Zion Church to Commemorate the Anniversary of Emancipation."
Program for the Emancipation Celebration at Mount Zion Church in Clarksburg
The daily telegram. [volume] (Clarksburg, W. Va.), 16 Sept. 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Clipping begins, "The Emancipation Celebration was a grand and most successful event. This was the first celebration ever held in this section. Davis and Thomas united, Thomas coming to Davis, and meeting at the school house, from thence to Blackwater Falls, a place of natural beauty. Everybody was served without cost. At 2 p.m., President Malone called to order and a program was rendered as Song--Battle Hymn of the Republic--Thirty Voices."
Program from the Davis and Thomas joint Emancipation celebration
The advocate. [volume] (Charleston, W. Va.), 29 Sept. 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Clipping begins, "Race leader Tyler will speak here. When Emancipation Day is celebrated by colored people of the community."
The daily telegram. [volume] (Clarksburg, W. Va.), 05 Sept. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Headline reads, "Emancipation Celebrated in County enjoyed"
The McDowell times. [volume] (Keystone, W. Va.), 09 April 1937. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
The McDowell times. [volume] (Keystone, W. Va.), 09 April 1937. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Learn and explore:

From the NMAAHC: The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth

O freedom! : afro-american emancipation celebrations by William H. Wiggins, Jr.

From the Texas State Historical Association: Juneteenth

Early Black Migration and the Post-emancipation Black Community in Cabell County,West Virginia, 1865-1871 by Cicero Fain

Mountaineers Becoming Free: Emancipation and Statehood by Michael E. Woods

From the University of Richmond: Visualizing Emancipation

Genealogy tools and resources from the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society

Black Genealogy in Virginia

WVU Black and African American Genealogy Guide


Transcribe Freedman’s Bureau Records with the Smithsonian

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