The history of African American presence in the Appalachian Region of the United States is a minimized and disregarded legacy. Many folks migrated to the state to work on the railroad but most sought opportunities in the developing coal mining industry. Mining companies often hired recruiters to attract workers who sometimes brought whole train loads of African American families from southern cities. Black workers also took an active role in addressing the repressive conditions they encountered. In the 1890’s when an epidemic of lynching occurred in the mining communities, in particular Pocahontas, black miners met 700 strong to demand an end to the brutality. They later strengthened their position by joining or organizing political groups and participating in the Knights of Labor.
The forbidden love of a Caucasian plantation owner for an African woman he had enslaved, proved to be the catalyst in creating of this unique community. Samuel I. Cabell, who fathered 13 children by the woman he so deeply cared for, was a member of a wealthy Virginia family which produced a governor and had a county named in their honor.
In 1850 Cabell brought a group of enslaved Africans to the Kanawha Valley to work the salt operations and it was during this time that he met and fell in love with Mary Barnes. In 1851 he wrote the first of four secret wills in which he states: “My woman, Mary Barnes, together with all her children, I do hereby give their freedom to take effect immediately at my death.” Seven years later, Cabell wrote his second will, fearing that his family might be sold as slaves after his death.
He states: “In the event of sudden demise, this instrument of writing is intended to show or make known that Mary Barnes and all her children-namely, Elizabeth, Sam, Lucy, Mary, Jane, Sidney, Ann, Soula, Eunice, Alice, Marina, Braxton and an infant not named, are and always have been free, as I have every right to believe they are my children. I want and it is my will that they shall be educated out of all the moneys, bonds, debts due me; land, stocks, farming utensils and household to be equally divided between them.”
Cabell seems to have been a severely conflicted individual. While he remained devoted to his African family he was also known as somewhat of a fanatic when it came to his southern sympathies. On 18 July 1865, he was murdered by seven of his neighbors with whom he had argued about their allegiance to the Union. In 1869, Mary Barnes successfully petitioned the county to change her name and the names of her children to Cabell. In 1870, the county commissioners divided the Cabell estate among the mother and her children. The property was valued at $42,128; a fortune at that time.
The Cabell children became educated which was rare for African children of the time, however, their quest was not without challenges. None of the West Virginia schools would accept them so they were forced to attend a private academy in Ohio. However, motivated by federal laws enacted in 1891 which threatened to reduce funds to states denying education to blacks, the state legislature reluctantly created the West Virginia Colored Institute.
Although, several communities rejected the opportunity to accept the institute, the black colony welcomed the idea with open arms. The settlement first known as Cabell Farm and later Pinety Grove, eventually grew to become the town of Institute. Mary Barnes Cabell died in 1900 and was buried side by side with Samuel Cabell in a small family cemetery.
Established in 1865 by former enslaved Africans who sought to create their own community and erect institutions reflecting their belief systems. Lead by its founder Lewis Rice, one such institution, the African Zion Baptist Church, became the first black church completely owned and controlled by African Americans in West Virginia.