The book “African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry,” by leading labor historian Joe William Trotter, Jr., offers a deep dive into the history of slavery, class dynamics, and race relations in West Virginia, with a brief but significant reminder of February 3, 1865—a pivotal date in West Virginia History, the day enslaved humans in West Virginia were freed.
While the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, is often celebrated as a sweeping decree of freedom, it did not apply to border states, including West Virginia, that were still aligned with the Union. Indeed, the Proclamation left slavery intact in these states, which included Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia. They would each, in turn, abolish slavery before the Civil War’s end, independently from the Proclamation.
West Virginia’s road to emancipation was complicated. The state’s 1863 constitution initiated a graduated emancipation process, freeing only enslaved individuals under 25. Older people remained in bondage until February 3, 1865, when state legislation and endorsement of the Thirteenth Amendment culminated in full emancipation.
Despite this unique path to freedom, West Virginia’s emancipation date remains overshadowed by more widely recognized events. For instance, Juneteenth, marking Texas’s liberation on June 19, 1865, is now celebrated nationwide. In Western Kentucky, the Eighth of August stands as a significant emancipation celebration and homecoming tradition dating back to the 1860s.
The tendency to view emancipation history through a national lens, however, glosses over the specific histories and struggles of each state. For West Virginia, February 3rd is its authentic “Freedom Day,” although it is largely forgotten outside historian circles.
West Virginia’s current governor, Jim Justice, officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday in 2023, but this move only skims the surface of reckoning with the state’s racial history. Justice has a disturbing record of making racially insensitive remarks, stirring national controversy, and showing little regard for the national conversation on racial justice. Justice’s comments reveal his lack of understanding of the state’s complex history with race and emancipation and only serve to highlight his ignorance in declaring Juneteenth – not Feb. 6th – as a holiday.
In light of these issues, it is paramount that West Virginians honor their true emancipation date—February 3rd—as a crucial part of their state’s history. This offers a truer account of the struggles and victories experienced by the state’s enslaved population and holds figures like Governor Justice accountable to that history. This critical recognition of West Virginia’s unique emancipation narrative helps to correct historical inaccuracies, creating a more informed foundation for future generations.