Today in History: Slavery compromise opens door to West Virginia statehood
SWEET SPRINGS, W.Va. – The birth of West Virginia is a complicated affair.
While it is often taught that West Virginia came about because the residents of western Virginia were staunch abolitionists and rejected Virginia’s secession from the United States at the beginning of the Civil War, only the second part is true. Four months before West Virginia could be carved out of Virginia in the midst of the Civil War, resolving the question of slavery for the roughly 15,000 slaves that lived in the western counties had yet to be resolved.
According to an article by Kenneth R. Bailey in the online West Virginia Encyclopedia, “In 1861, voters west of the Allegheny Mountains rejected Virginia’s secession from the United States, and instead opted to create a loyal Reorganized Government of Virginia. It was only a matter of time until West Virginia was created.” However, Bailey continues, “Among the constitutional issues to be addressed was the question of slavery, which existed in parts of the proposed new state. Sentiment in the western counties was sharply divided. Some preferred to retain slavery, some favored total abolition, and some favored gradual emancipation. Still others sought to exclude Blacks from the new state entirely.”
Most of the slaves were in the southeastern counties of what is now West Virginia, counties that, like Monroe County today, are primarily border counties with Virginia. The wider valleys were more suitable for plantations. The climate and springs of those counties also offered a playground of sorts for plantation owners from the Deep South. The milder climate and Springs areas of Monroe County and other nearby environs drew families – and slaves – from those plantations from July through October to the Sweet Springs Hotel and other nearby resorts. Also, some slaves were owned by middle- and upper-class residents of counties further west, in the Allegheny Plateau. Among them was Waitman Willey, a Morgantown attorney that had been born a few miles south in Farmington.
Despite having owned slaves, Willey was instrumental in crafting the compromise known as “gradual emancipation,” which led to the formation of West Virginia. Willey had been a delegate to the 1850-51 Virginia Convention that debated secession, and spoke eloquently against secession, though unsuccessfully. He then turned his efforts, with others, to form a new state. He was chosen to represent the Reorganized Government of Virginia in the U.S. Senate.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, the time had arrived to seek statehood for the western counties. The First West Virginia Constitutional Convention, which had convened in November 1861, settled on the name West Virginia for the new state and held contentious debates over slavery. So, as Bailey writes, “The matter (of slavery) went before the U.S. Senate. Radical Republican Charles Sumner of Massachusetts proposed to free all slaves in West Virginia as of July 4, 1863. His proposal was defeated, and Reorganized Government of Virginia Sen. Waitman Willey suggested that children born to slave mothers after July 4, 1873, should be freed. This proposal in turn was not acceptable to senators wishing to eliminate slavery, a concept for which they felt the North was fighting the Civil War. Willey then managed to strike a compromise which was acceptable to a majority. The Willey Amendment to the West Virginia Statehood Bill provided that all slaves under 21 years of age on July 4, 1863, would be free on reaching that age.”
On Feb. 17, 1863, the Convention adopted the compromise, opening the door for West Virginia to become a state on June 20, 1863. And, while the compromise was hardly favorable to slaves, that became a moot point when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect on Dec. 18, 1865. It proclaims, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
While it was an imperfect process involving imperfect people, in the end this is a historic day, for it is a day when Black History and West Virginia history intersect. In the end, for various and personal reasons, West Virginia’s founders cast aside the chains that bound them and her people to the racist economy of the Old Dominion – an economy that was defended, unsuccessfully, to the death.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2022.
Sources: Bailey, Kenneth R. “Willey Amendment.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 26 April 2021. Web. 17 February 2022; Grimm, Jeanne “Waitman Willey.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 December 2015. Web. 17 February 2022.