Torture case sheds light on long, complex history of race relations in West Virginia

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Ever since police arrested six whites in the rape and torture of a black woman, Claude Williams has been accepting apologies.

Williams, a black security guard at the courthouse where the case is unfolding, said whites continually approach him to express shame for the allegations.

Williams is not related to the victim, Megan Williams, but feels a kinship with her. He descended from coal miners who came to work in West Virginia from Alabama, where “you’d be a 50-year-old black man and a 10-year-old white boy would be called ‘sir,’ and he’d call you ‘boy.”’

Authorities have not filed hate crime charges in the attack, but for many residents, the issue of race is inseparable from the assault on Megan Williams, who said she was doused with hot water, forced to eat animal feces, and taunted with racial slurs.

The graphic allegations have reverberated across West Virginia, where 97 percent of the state’s 1.8 million residents are white. But many locals bristle at the shadow the case has cast across their communities.

“It’s not a West Virginia problem,” said the Rev. Emanuel Heyliger of the Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in Dunbar, a friend of Megan Williams’ family. “This could happen anywhere in the United States where men’s minds are blighted by evil.”

West Virginia’s relationship with race is older than the state. It broke away from Virginia in 1861 rather than join the Confederacy. But that move was not a straightforward renunciation of slavery, which was still legal in West Virginia when the state joined the Union in 1863. Gov. Arthur Boreman abolished it two years later.

West Virginia’s legal system enforced racial segregation until the start of the 1960s. Laws were passed to ban interracial marriage and the education of black children together with whites. There was even a law requiring birth, death and marriage records for blacks to be kept in separate registers.

But unlike some states, West Virginia’s government took an active role in building an alternate society of black institutions. The first publicly funded black school below the Mason-Dixon line was founded in 1866 in West Virginia, and by the start of World War II, the state also had two public colleges, a hospital for the mentally ill, vocational training schools, an orphanage and a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.

“To tell you the truth, black people were able to do things here they weren’t always able to do in other places, particularly the deep South,” said Cicero Fain, an assistant history professor at Marshall University.

“But blacks were always aware they were supposed to be second-class citizens,” he said. “The state funded these institutions, assisted in establishing them, but never tried to integrate them into the prevailing white power structure.”

Former state NAACP President James Tolbert says the state’s blacks have long struggled for adequate attention.

“There have been some improvements, we can’t deny that,” Tolbert said. “But we’d like to see a whole lot more. And there should be a whole lot more.”

After the rape-and-torture case, “everybody started talking about all these problems everybody had,” said Ivin B. Lee, executive director of the state Human Rights Commission.

Like other black leaders, Lee has asked for patience until authorities decide whether to file hate crime charges against the suspects. Federal prosecutors have so far declined to pursue civil rights charges, and county prosecutors decided to first pursue charges that carry stiffer penalties.

Those decisions helped spark an often-heated national debate about race that also included the arrest of six black teenagers in Jena, La., in the beating of a white classmate, and the furor over Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s participation in a dog-fighting operation.

The dialogue that has emerged in the wake of the charges in Logan County is vital, said Paul Sheridan, who leads the state attorney general’s civil rights division.

“What’s driving that emotion is a very legitimate concern,” he said. “If you don’t affirm the complexity of the concerns, that becomes problematic.”

In the coal camps where Claude Williams grew up, he remembers unfettered integration among blacks, whites, and immigrants from Italy and Hungary.

“We played together, ate together, spent the night in each other’s houses,” Williams said. “We just didn’t go to school together.”

In the mid-1950s, Claude’s father, Ed, was the first black man to work for the Ethel mine in Logan County. One miner “with a whole lot of mouth” led a brief, unsuccessful strike in protest.

In time, the two men became friends, and Williams remembers them laughing and drinking moonshine together at his home on Saturday nights.

“People staying apart’s how they stay ignorant of each other,” he said. “That’s how prejudice is made.”

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