Recorded history of African Americans in Randolph County begins in the 18th century. Like the rest of Virginia in the 18th century slavery was an active part of life. While the enslaved population in this region never approached the levels of tidewater Virginia, they were a consistent presence in Beverly. Some of the earliest settlers of the Tygart Valley brought enslaved people with them. Our earliest reference is a story that dates to 1777, of an enslaved woman named Rose who escaped an Indian raid with the Wilson family.
Slavery persisted in Randolph County up until the Civil War. We know the majority of Beverly’s most prominent families owned slaves and many stories from the antebellum period survive from the historical record. One story involves a woman named Lydia Ann. Records show that Lydia was emancipated in 1806 and that she petitioned the Randolph County court for permission to reside in this region, as even free people of color needed permission before moving into a new community. After a two month process, the court unanimously granted her request, finding Lydia to be “of good character judicialy [sic] orderly & industrious and not addicted to drunkenness gambling or any other vice”.
The end of the Civil War brought the official end of slavery in West Virginia. Many newly freed men and women participated in the Great Migration to cities in the North for the opportunities afforded by industrial jobs. Others stayed in the area by reason of choice or necessity. Despite emancipation, lives for many of Beverly’s black residents remained similar to how they were before the war. They often worked low paying jobs that brought little prestige. This began to change in the 1890s.
The railroad came to Beverly in 1891 and with it came a number of major changes for the town and for the entire county. One change was that it brought the need for labor to build and operate the railroad. Many of these laborers came from outside West Virginia, and many of them were African American. Another change was the arrival of the African Methodist Episcopal church to Beverly. In 1894, the Pittsburgh Conference sent Reverend E. R. Bazier to Beverly to found a church. Which he did, founding a smaller church in Cassity Fork a year later. In addition to his religious duties, Reverend Bazier also operated schools at both Beverly and Cassity Fork. These schools and churches improved the lives of Beverly’s black community.
Due in large part to the efforts of Reverend Bazier, the quality of life for Beverly’s black community showed a marked improvement in the early 20th century. Literacy rates gradually improved and there were noticeably more diverse occupations available to African Americans. Throughout the county, African Americans labored to build railroads, worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and fought in both World Wars.
This photograph shows the climax of the courthouse wars between Beverly and Elkins. In 1899 a gang of Elkins residents decided that they were going to take matters into their own hands and steal the court documents from Beverly to bring to Elkins. Beverly residents got wind of this plot, took up arms, and rose to the defense of the courthouse. One of those who came to the defense of the courthouse was a black man named Samuel Tibbs. A close examination of the photograph reveals that several men of color participated in the courthouse defense.