McDowell County’s racial diversity is unique in a state where 93% of residents are White. African Americans from the South came to West Virginia’s coalfields at the same time as immigrants from Germany, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. That same diversity can still be seen across the county today where 72% of Keystone residents, 54% of Northfork residents, 19% of Welch residents and 35% of Gary residents are African American.
This evening I had the pleasure of interviewing Rose and Roland Henderson of Kyle, W.Va. The couple married 49 years ago after meeting at Elkhorn High School. Growing up in the coal camps of Kyle and Gilliam, Roland and Ruth say there was no differentiation between Black and White families. “When they all came out of the mines they were all black,” Roland said about his father and the other immigrants.
The Black American couple told the story of their first experience with racism after moving to Louisiana.
"We went to a movie together and we went in hand-in-hand," Roland said. "The man said, ‘You can’t sit here. You have to go upstairs and she has to go downstairs.’ And I looked at the man and said, ‘Wait a minute. Her body is just as black as mine and she’s my wife so wherever I go, she goes with me.’"
It was at that point they realized their unified upbringing in McDowell was a unique experience not seen in the deep south.