On this dayNov 26, 1861

State of West Virginia Formed; Slavery Authorized

University of Richmond

On November 26, 1861, a section of the state of Virginia began proceedings to separate and create the new state of West Virginia. The new state was formed from a region of Virginia that strongly opposed the state’s decision to secede from the Union and to join the Confederacy in the Civil War. However, despite forming to be part of the Union, the new state’s constitution authorized slavery to continue in West Virginia, and it was not abolished until 1865.

At the time, eastern Virginia planters enslaved many more Black people than people in the western counties, while also holding much of the power in the Virginia legislature (due to the larger populations in their region, fueled in part by enslaved Black people). When representatives of eastern Virginia voted to join the Confederacy on April 17, 1861, a group of western delegates led by John S. Carlile walked out and swore to form a government from western counties that would remain loyal to the Union. 

Over the next few months, delegates held an alternative convention and voted to form the new state of West Virginia. At the Constitutional Convention that began on November 26, 1861 and lasted until February 1862, delegates considered many topics, including slavery. While the delegates were united in wanting to join the Union, many of these delegates wanted slavery to continue in West Virginia.

Delegates considered gradual emancipation for currently enslaved Black people in the new West Virginia state boundaries others proposed banning all Black people, enslaved or free from the state: “No slave shall be brought,” the draft constitution read, “or free person of color be permitted to come into this State for permanent residence.”

On February 12, 1863, however, the delegates adopted revisions mandated by Congress, which still authorized slavery to continue in West Virginia. Under the final constitution, enslaved Black children born after July 4, 1863, were to be freed immediately, and all other enslaved children were to be freed when they turned twenty-one. The revised constitution with this policy of gradual abolition was approved days later and West Virginia gained statehood.

Consequently, because the January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation legally freed enslaved people in all rebelling territories, legal slavery actually ended in Virginia before it ended in West Virginia, though Virginia defied the proclamation through the end of the Civil War. West Virginia ultimately abolished slavery in 1865, shortly before passage of the 13th Amendment. 

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