Larry L. Rowe, an attorney and state legislator in the hometown of Booker T. Washington, has written a bold, and at times raw, history of slavery and how eastern Virginia slavers kept a death grip on the new republic’s morality, politics, and economy in each of the three constitutional epochs: 1776 Revolution, 1787 Constitutional Convention, and 1861 Civil War. It details slavery in Virginia and throughout the South and as it was exploited by Kanawha industrialists to produce salt before the terms “industry,” “factories,” and “Industrial Revolution” were used.
His work is in two books divided by the Civil War. Book One is now available, Virginia Slavery and King Salt in Booker T. Washington’s Boyhood Home. That book tells the story of the Ruffner family, the booming salt industry they created as “Salt Kings,” and the Virginia slavery they adapted for forced labor on the frontier.
Booker’s formative years were in Old Malden, from 1865 at age 9 through 1881 when he was 25 and moved to South Alabama to start Tuskegee Institute. From his boyhood heroes he developed values, vision, and a plan to build a black middle class in the South by expanding the American Dream to all people without exceptions for any group. His freed boyhood heroes established their own church secretly in slavery in 1852, nine years before the Civil War. During the war, they proudly formed the African Zion Baptist Church, as the new state’s first black Baptist church, while still in slavery. They had the small church establish the new state’s second school for blacks. From his boyhood heroes, he developed a gospel for the “American Dream” that he demanded be shared by all people, before that term was used to identify unique opportunities for many people for success in America–but which was denied to African Americans for another century.
Booker’s parents were leaders in their community. They courageously integrated Malden by buying a home in town four years after they were slaves, challenging a KKK order to keep blacks out of the town. A race riot broke out six weeks after their purchase, over the right of freed people to seek protections in the court system. At age 13, he saw the riot and his family–like Rosa Parks many years later on a Montgomery bus–just “stay put,” ever ready to prove they would be good neighbors to all people. A casualty of the riot was Lewis Ruffner who, while standing with his former slaves with a revolver in his hand, was hit in the head with a brick. He never walked again without two canes.
Book One sets the scene for Booker’s heroes, working in slavery in a pioneer industrial town in the wilderness of western Virginia, where the well-to-do pioneer Ruffner family made the first successful settlement, serving as government officials, town planners, patrons of the first school academy and first Presbyterian churches, all after they had created a new major salt industry on the western frontier by inventing percussion drilling to pierce over 50 feet of bedrock for the first deep well in the western world.
In a southern story-telling style, Larry L. Rowe presents in detail the history of the state from its early settlers, and the booming salt industry in the Kanawha Valley through the War of 1812 and the important forty-eight antebellum years that were scarred by the forced mass migration of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Virginians sold away from their families to Deep South cotton plantations. The Cotton Boom required about one million Upper South slaves to be sent south led by eastern Virginian slavers who made young people they held in slavery commodities to be sold like livestock. To protect their booming slave markets in the Deep South states, eastern Virginians pushed the state into the Confederacy, turning a short protest of seven small agricultural states into a four-year death march killing over 600,000 American soldiers which in today’s population would be as many as seven million men. Virginia, as one of the largest, richest, most populated, and influential states in the Union led the key states of North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee into the Confederacy. This history is untold. It is a history of Virginia shared with West Virginia. It is a history that should be told.