Civil Rights Issues in West Virginia
A Community Climate of Intolerance
The bulk of the testimony at the three forums addressed issues related to law enforcement, education, and employment—three major arenas of public life where civil rights issues and racial relations are played out. Participants also, however, presented a range of additional personal experiences and observations of day-to-day racial stereotyping, discriminatory treatment, and intimidation in other aspects of life that contribute to the civil rights climate and are a part of the larger picture. Some incidents of this nature can be verified and pursued through formal complaints, while others are difficult or impossible to pursue. In all cases, however, the impact on people is real and leads to great frustration—frustration that often deepens to despair as repeated official promises to act on problems amount to nothing.
Katherine Bankole, director of the Center for Black Culture and Research at West Virginia University, said African Americans are frequently stereotyped based on their appearance; for example, a dark-skinned person dressed a certain way, spending cash, may be assumed to be a drug dealer. She noted:
African American married women who are faculty at WVU said that when they are by themselves without their husbands, with their children . . . they’re often perceived or approached as if they are a welfare mother, a dreaded single welfare mother who is a complete drain on society, and treated as such.
Other panelists made the point that even a professional appearance does not protect against racist stereotyping. Rev. Alfonso Heyliger, pastor of Ferguson Baptist Church and president of the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance, told the Charleston forum of his own experience:
About a month ago, I went into a Rite Aid. I have on a suit because most times I wear a suit, and a lady there, a white lady, as soon as I walked in, she went and she followed me, looked at me funny. When our eyes met, she turned and she walked away. . . . Regardless of what [I achieve] personally, professionally, and what have you, somebody is going to follow me, be suspicious of me because I am black. It is not disputed.
Rev. Heyliger expressed concern for young African Americans, saying that “their minds and their spirits are kind of breaking by this negative feeling . . . If I, who am supposed to be successful, did all the right things, dress all the right ways, if I can feel that, you can imagine young people in a hip-hop generation.”
The Center for Black Culture and Research receives wide-ranging complaints from minority students, mainly black and Latino, as well as from minority faculty, staff, and community members. According to Dr. Bankole, they report being:
Monitored in stores, through a coded public announcement to store employees that blacks have entered the premises.
Followed in stores by security guards.
Ignored by sales clerks in the apparent belief that blacks do not have money to spend
Refused the rental of apartments.
Subjected to unwritten policies and procedures, such as identification checks when making a purchase.
Subjected to extra physical checks, for example, at airports.
Allen Lee, president of the Harrison County chapter of the NAACP, provided an example of such an incident to the Morgantown forum:
A young man went over to Fairmont to a club there and was denied entrance there because he was with three other white fellows. First, all they needed was a card identification. When it came to him, he wasn’t dressed appropriately. He left, went home, dressed appropriately, and came back with his one card of identification and he was then told he needed two cards of identification. And also one of the employees there was heard to make the remark, “We don’t want him in here anyway.” So eventually the police were called and the young man was asked to leave.
Pervading the discussions was the sense that to be a racial minority in a demographically homogeneous state such as West Virginia is an isolating and sometimes intimidating experience. According to Dr. Bankole, some black students fear visiting certain areas of West Virginia:
And they say, you know, you can’t go to a certain county at night if you are a person of color, because that could be trouble. And perceptions, sometimes, are everything. Even if it’s not true, the fact that somebody is talking about it [means] that perhaps for some people, no matter how small the number, it is true.
Bankole testimony before the West Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Morgantown, WV, June 14, 1999,
transcript, p. 142 (hereafter cited as Morgantown
Bankole testimony, Morgantown Transcript, pp.
Heyliger testimony before the West Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Charleston, WV, Apr. 20, 2000,
transcript, pp. 217–18 (hereafter cited as Charleston
Heyliger testimony, Charleston Transcript, p. 218.
Bankole testimony, Morgantown
Transcript, pp. 132–37.
Lee testimony, Morgantown Transcript,
 Bankole testimony, Morgantown Transcript, pp. 143–44.