W.Va.’s Tortuous Road to Emancipation

West Virginia was not allowed to join the Union until it had enacted an emancipation program for the enslaved people within its borders. This article from 2015 by John F. Stealey III, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus of Shepherd University, traces how West Virginia got to that emancipation program.

In reading the article, we learn, “When the West Virginia Bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, statehood supporters soon discovered that passage was improbable without adequate provisions affecting slavery. Eventually Sen. Waitman Thomas Willey of Morgantown introduced an amendment written by Rep. William G. Brown of Kingwood that children born of slaves after July 4, 1863, would be free and no slave shall be permitted to come into the state for permanent residence. Sen. James Henry Lane of Kansas successfully amended the Willey proposal to provide a more comprehensive emancipation. Slave children under 10 years of age on July 4, 1863 would become free at 21, and those over 10 and under 21 on the same date would become free at age 25. The Brown/Lane/Willey Amendment became part of the final West Virginia bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln subject to its adoption by a reconvened constitutional convention. The convention adopted the Brown/Lane/Willey Amendment in February 1863, and voters ratified the amended constitution in March.” We also learn that absent any other action, West Virginia could still have had people held in slavery as late as World War I.

“As the Union Army seized more and more Confederate territory and applied the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, and many Republican congressional leaders perceived the inconsistency of slaves becoming free in the South while the institution continued in the loyal Border States and the loyal areas excepted from the operation of the Emancipation Proclamation. They proposed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the U. S. and in anyplace subject to its jurisdiction. Informed West Virginians could anticipate what the future held for slavery when the U.S. Senate passed the amendment in April 1864. The proposal failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority for passage in the House in June. Proponents continued to push congressmen for support of the measure until it passed on Jan. 31, 1865. The next day, slightly more than two months before the rebel surrender at Appomattox, President Lincoln signed the joint resolution submitting the amendment to the states for ratification. The Third West Virginia Legislature was prepared to act to free slaves. On Jan. 23, 1865, it had instructed the state’s senators and representatives to favor the amendment to abolish slavery. It also appointed a joint legislative committee to inquire into the expediency and constitutionality of immediately abolishing state slavery and to report an appropriate bill or otherwise.” The Thirteenth Amendment, therefore, provided the impetus for West Virginia immediately freeing all its slaves by legislative action on the same day the state legislature ratified that amendment. “The majestic words were: ‘All persons held to service for labor as slaves in this state, are hereby declared free’ and ‘There shall hereafter be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this State’ except as punishment for a crime. During the momentous events of a devastating civil war, West Virginia had established itself in 1863 and became a free state 10 months before national ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on Dec. 18, 1865. Because of Emancipation Day, Feb. 3, 1865, for Mountain State whites and African Americans there was no return to a society that existed in 1861.”

When some neoconfederate tries to deceive you by telling a small part of the story in saying Lincoln was hypocritical for bringing West Virginia into the Union as a slave state, you can give the rest of the story and show how that neoconfederate is lying by omission.


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