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  • The Rise and Fall of West Virginia’s Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics, 1921–1957
  • Colin E. Reynolds

In 1955, Ivanhoe S. Wayne, the director of West Virginia’s Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics, sued the state auditor for unpaid wages. The state contended that the legislature had not approved Wayne’s appointment and that he was entitled neither to the position he claimed nor to the salary prescribed in the West Virginia Code. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals concurred that the bureau and its director operated at the legislature’s pleasure.1 Two years later, not long after Governor William Marland lauded West Virginia’s mostly peaceful desegregation of its public schools in his final address to the legislature, a bill to reestablish the provision for the bureau director’s salary died in the state senate’s finance committee.2

With the bureau slated for quiet termination, Director Bird R. Forney and Field Deputy William L. Spriggs wrote a final report, a shorter and more indignant one than usual. School desegregation, they pointed out, was taking place alongside increasing black unemployment and a dramatic exodus of African Americans from the state. “In the same manner by which the entire people of West Virginia aided and accepted the integration of schools,” they wrote, “so should its officials and civic leaders search with all diligence for ways to eradicate racial and ethnic discriminatory practices, because we search haplessly for work.”3 If integration were to accomplish anything of value for West Virginia’s African Americans, they argued, it would need to be applied beyond the schoolhouse door.

Forney and Spriggs exaggerated in their claim that West Virginia’s “entire people” had accepted the desegregation of schools and state-funded institutions. Members of the state’s political establishment, including Governor Marland and School Superintendent W. W. Trent, had placed their allegiance firmly behind the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. For years the bureau’s leaders had worked for black economic advancement in West Virginia without specifically advocating school integration. Now that such integration was being accomplished, the state government seemed indifferent to increasing black economic inequality. [End Page 1]

Between 1921 and 1957, the Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics published biennial reports about the economic and social conditions of West Virginia’s African Americans. These reports usually included population and vital statistics; information about labor, disease, housing, and crime; reflections on race relations and job discrimination; and reports from each of West Virginia’s segregated public institutions, from its three black colleges to its “colored” tuberculosis sanitarium. These reports yield valuable insight into the politics of race in a border state before Brown v. Board of Education. Though state law relegated West Virginia’s African Americans to separate schools and public institutions, their retention of the franchise gave them unusual influence in a segregated society.4 West Virginia’s Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics was an organization of African American civic leaders committed to racial uplift who were simultaneously government bureaucrats in a segregated state.

Contributors to “Long Civil Rights Movement” historiography have noted that black activism predating the decision in Brown v. Board of Education emphasized economic rights, or a broader set of human rights, that the “classical” Civil Rights Movement of the anticommunist 1950s abandoned.5 In a limited way, West Virginia’s bureau fits into this framework. Yet in other ways it complicates Long Civil Rights Movement historiography. The bureau was founded on a local tradition of black activism but not the activism of the 1930s “popular front,” that short-lived alliance of American Communists and leftists who hoped to forge a political alliance of the black and white working classes.6 The bureau’s origin lay instead in the Progressive Era politics of the 1910s.7 During the 1930s, it evolved as part of the developing welfare state.

The existence of West Virginia’s Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics, and of similar agencies in other states, complicates the idea that civil rights activism before the mid-twentieth century was a radical endeavor.8 As a segregated government agency, the bureau was a product of and...