West Virginia’s Black Lawmakers
From the first Black legislator elected in 1896 to today's three delegates, their history is overshadowed by white political power
Too often, lessons of our politics include only the stories of white West Virginians. The whitewashed history of Appalachia has primarily become its legacy, silencing the Black lawmakers that have worked to create a place where Mountaineers are always free. More than two and a half centuries after statehood, Black political power is still subject to the oppressive, white-supremacist structure that serves to erase it. Being Black in Appalachia has been overshadowed by white political narratives to which we have all unknowingly accepted. Postbellum Appalachia is more than just what we have perceived through a white lens, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to recognize and explore the Black influence on West Virginian legislation and policy.
As southern West Virginia’s Black population grew in the late 1800s, Black individuals began to carry more weight in an overwhelmingly white political system. It wasn’t until 1896 that Christopher Payne, the first Black person to serve in the West Virginia legislature, was elected. From Payne onward, Black lawmakers in West Virginia have advocated for social and racial justice. Payne began West Virginia’s legacy of Black newspapers by establishing three of his own, bringing accessible information to marginalized Black communities. James Ellis, the second Black person elected to the legislature, played a vital role in revising West Virginia’s educational system to increase student success to this day.
Unsurprisingly, many of West Virginia’s Black women were political trailblazers as well. In 1928, Minnie Buckingham Harper was appointed to the House, shattering the glass ceiling as the first Black woman to become a member of any legislative body in the United States. Harper’s appointment reflected the growing importance of southern West Virginia’s Black political coalition at the time. Elizabeth Simpson Drewry, the legislature’s second female Black delegate introduced several major bills from providing compensation for victims of black lung to amending the state constitution so that women could serve as jurors. The first Black person elected to the Senate was also a woman, Marie Redd, who began to serve in 1998.
Black history and hidden history should not be synonymous; Black history is West Virginia history. The progress made by our Black lawmakers is a groundbreaking element of what the Mountain State is today. Their fight to build a more just society and their spirit of public service alongside racial struggle depicts their true dedication to West Virginia, and their contributions deserve to be recognized. From Christopher Payne and Minnie Buckingham Harper to Sean Hornbuckle and Danielle Walker, Black Appalachian history continues to be made in front of our very eyes, and it is our job to break down the constructs used to erase Black power as well as to learn and teach about the presence and significance of West Virginia’s Black lawmakers.
Myya Helm is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and International Studies at West Virginia University.
Representing Black West Virginians Today in the House of Delegates
West Virginia’s only Black female lawmaker Danielle Walker (D-Monongalia) represents the 81st district, which covers Morgantown surrounding areas. Photos by West Virginia Leglislative Photography.
Caleb Hanna (R-Nicholas) represents District 44, which serves Webster County and parts of Nicholas and Greenbrier counties.
Sean Hornbuckle (D-Cabell) serves the 25th district, which includes Huntington.
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