On June 20, 1863, West Virginia joined the fractured union as the 35th state.
Yes, that was during the Civil War. Yes, West Virginia had been the northwestern counties of Virginia. No, I’m not sure of the history of how Congress decided Virginia had consented to be divided.
In any case, per the guidelines in the U.S. Flag Code, West Virginians should fly the U.S. flag today in honor of their statehood, 154 years ago. West Virginia no doubt has lots of celebrations, reenactments, and general festive events planned.
Sunday I had a visit with a fellow who was born in western Virginia, went to school at Virginia Tech, and knew the New River geography (which was how we got into the conversation). He said the New River emptied into a river whose name he could never pronounce. Took a few minutes to realize he meant the Kanawha River, shown in the photo above. Pronouncing the river, and the county correctly is an interesting exercise. We once thought about living along the Kanawha, and I appreciated the frustration of our Virginia friend.
It’s usually pronounced in two syllables, ka-NAH; when locals have more time for a slower-paced conversation, it may become ka-NAH-uh — but they’ll look at you funny if they hear a “w” in your pronunciation. (Your mileage may vary; tell about it in comments.)
Kathryn and I have a few fond memories of Charleston on the banks of the Kanawha River. Then-West Virginia Attorney General Charlie Brown was one of the few with enough wisdom to offer me a job, when I graduated from the National Law Center at George Washington University as an older student. Brown promised to clean up West Virginia politics, and he had a lively, very young crew of attorneys fighting coal companies, oil companies, loggers, shady real estate people, and corrupt city, county and state officials. One fellow in the office complained that he’d “had to argue eight cases” at the State Supreme Court that year, in his first year out of law school.
But the corrupt officials knew what they were doing. Brown could only offer $25,000 a year, and in Charleston it was unlikely we’d be able to find any work for Kathryn. Tough to attract crime fighters at less-than crime-fighting rates. It would have been a more than 75% cut in income. We made a trip there to mull it over, baby on the way (pre-digital photographs buried in the archives). Brown got a special dispensation to offer me $5,000 more.
Great tour of the Capitol, great interviews with the office lawyers. Kathryn and I sat for a long while in the deserted West Virginia Supreme Court (sort of tucked into an attic of the Capitol) discussing how in the world we could afford to move the Charleston and take on the work. We drove around the city, looking at houses for sale and rent; we gazed at the Kanawha River and discussed the future for the city.
We went to dinner in a tiny restaurant touted as Charleston’s finest, which was a long way from good eateries in D.C. We discussed with our host the cultural pickings in Charleston. We could give up the symphony but get back to fishing and practice fly fishing . . .
A few tables over, the maitre ‘d brought in a few extra chairs, and then seated Muhammad Ali and his party. Our waiter asked that we not make a scene.
I don’t remember for what charitable purpose Ali was in Charleston, but the event was over and his hosts took him out to the good restaurant in Charleston, too.
Ali was a slower, sedate and gentle version of the fiery fighter he’d been. Parkinson’s disease already had him in its grip. His voice, soft as it could be at times, was still strong enough to carry across a table. There was a young boy with the group, under five years old. Ali had lost steps, but not spirit. He produced a couple of balls from a pocket and proceeded to dazzle the kid with sleight-of-hand magic tricks. He picked one of the balls from behind the kid’s ear, and the kid giggled wonderfully. Balls appeared here, disappeared there — I remember thinking how much easier those tricks could be with hands that big; but Ali also had difficulty dealing with a knife and fork. Working magic tricks pulled years away from Ali, and he seemed much younger, much more deft than he really was. The little boy laughed and giggled through the meal. It was a happy affair.
Our dinners finished about the same time. As we got up, Ali looked over at us and said, “You wonder why I spend so much time with children? They are the future.”
I turned down the offer from West Virginia. A job I’d hoped for at American Airlines fell through, but a position opened up at the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) at Bill Bennett’s Department of Education. A year or so later I saw small item in the Washington Post that Charlie Brown had been indicted on some charge. Coal companies still have a lot of clout in West Virginia.
This is an anniversary day for Ali, too: June 20, 1967, Muhammad Ali was convicted in Houston, Texas, of evading the draft. That conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fly those flags in West Virginia.
- “Officials see West Virginia Day as an opportunity to celebrate history, uniqueness,” (Clarksburg) Exponent-Telegram, June 19, 2017
- “Howard Swint: Entry into the Union was the 35th state’s finest hour (Daily Mail),” Charleston Gazette-Mail, June 19, 2017
- Another Charleston, in South Carolina, remembers Ali, Charleston Post & Courier, June 16, 2016
- Civil War Trust, “Toward Statehood”
- West Virginia statehood 150 years ago, amidst Civil War, is a story like no other (observer-reporter.com)
- Statehood Day uncelebrated in Charleston 150 years ago (wvgazette.com)
- Ten things to know about W.Va. sesquicentennial (wvgazette.com)
- State ready to get 150th birthday party started (wvgazette.com)
- Help us gather 150 ideas for West Virginia’s future (blogs.wvgazette.com)
- “No Black Folks, No WV” – The African-American Key To State History (publicnewsservice.org)
- The Granny State or the Vanilla State. (dailymail.com)
- West Virginia’s 150th birthday (theobamacrat.com)