"This morning my worst nightmare came true"

Hate speech aimed at a beloved biracial family in this tiny West Virginia town sparks fear -- and a "love fest"

Published January 19, 2015 3:00PM (EST)

Blair Campbell, her husband, Charlan Campbell, and their children.
Blair Campbell, her husband, Charlan Campbell, and their children.

Hillsboro, West Virginia, sits on the wide floor of the Little Levels Valley, so a traveler entering from the north or the south will get a rare moment of flat, straight road before seeing the green metal welcome signs. If you enter from the north—coming back from hiking in the Monongahela National Forest maybe, or skiing at posh Snowshoe Mountain, or else just headed home from working at Pocahontas County Memorial Hospital or at one of the businesses in “town,” aka Marlinton, the county seat that lies along the Greenbrier River—you’ll pass wide fields that build to mountainous layers and then sky, cows kneeling in gray water. Come from the south, and if you too are not headed home from the doctor’s office or from work, you’ve likely strayed from Interstate 64 and at the T, chosen mountains instead of town. Switchback after switchback and you are cresting Droop Mountain—site of a crucial Civil War battle and modern reenactments—then drop around the hairpin turns of West Virginia route 219 before clanking down on that same flat stretch of road. Either way, and you’re probably listening to excellent bluegrass on Hillsboro’s local station, West Virginia Mountain Radio or country out of Roanoke—all other stations (not to mention cell reception) are blocked in this National Quiet Zone, incorporated as such to protect the Robert C. Byrd Telescope, in nearby Green Bank, from all the noise radiation we humans now make. This is not coal country. Logging trucks swing around the switchbacks, their wheels wobbling under loads of timber. Once they reach Hillsboro, they have to brake hard to obey the school speed limit. Then there’s the auto repair shop on the left, and on the right, a giant copper penny—the Pretty Penny Café, Hillsboro’s only restaurant.

Friday nights are the best Penny nights. On Fridays, there is live bluegrass—sometimes from locals the Viney Mountain Bluegrass boys, sometimes from the guitar picker and expert car mechanic who works across the road, sometimes from high school students who’ve walked over from the public library, sometimes from diners who have to go out to the parking lot and retrieve mandolins and banjos from their dark Subarus. Owner Blair Campbell, born in nearby Valley Head but raised in Hillsboro since the 8th grade, is generous with the free beer and snacks for any who play. In a red bandanna and earrings, she strides through the white swinging door to the kitchen or cops a seat at a friend’s table for a quick break. “No way,” she says, shaking her head at something that’s been said and laughing freely, “No way, that’s bananas.” At other quieter moments, she can be caught standing behind the register, just looking around the room, a former general store, or watching the flow of traffic out to the back patio where there is a fire pit and Adirondack chairs. At a certain point, her husband and kids will show up to help shut the place down for the night or just say hi. Charlan, a tall Jamaican man with close-cropped hair and dark skin, will talk with Blair by the kitchen while Penelope and Oliver, both brown-skinned, make the rounds through the dining room. Penelope receives many compliments on her crown, scepter or cool shoes. Oliver roams the place, following his older sister.

On Jan. 8, those driving to work on 219 were the first to notice it, on the Penny’s white wall, in green spray paint: “Nigger Lover.” Blair called the police. Capt. Troy McCoy came and made a report. “He was kind and efficient,” Blair says. “I think the sheriff’s office will do a fine investigation.” She went and got some brake cleaner from her neighbors Dick Burns and John Duncan and began washing the words off. Soon, seven other Hillsboro residents had shown up to help—including her friend Sarah Riley and Sarah’s husband, Joe, the principal of the local middle school, both of whom are white, and Frank Walker, the Penny’s chef, who is black. Before long, the wall was clean.

“This morning my worst nightmare came true,” Blair posted later on Facebook, where much of the public conversation about this crime has been happening. “I love Hillsboro SO much. The Campbell family has felt nothing but love from everyone here. This community has stuck by me as I have figured out how to run my business…I am eternally grateful. This is our home.

“I need people to understand this hateful crime will not be over looked,” Campbell continued. “I will not turn a quiet ear like some do when they her racist jokes or derogatory comments about women. I refuse to live in a place where people overlook wrong doing. I need us all to stand together and show the rest of WV that Pocahontas County is not some racist, ignorant place. That the few don’t speak for the many. We need people to know this is a place that treasures diversity.”

The national discussion of racial change often situates racial front lines in urban centers. Rural towns, particularly in Appalachia and throughout the South, are dead zones, backward places for local people of color to flee, and visitors of color to avoid. Or so the story goes.

Pocahontas County is the largest county in the United States by landmass, approximately equivalent in size to the state of Rhode Island. There are nine square miles of land for every county resident—just under 9,000 people live in the county, and fewer than 300 in Hillsboro. The county contains exactly one high school. Situated within the Allegheny Mountains, it has the highest average elevation of any county east of the Mississippi, and the largest concentration of public lands in West Virginia. Eight major rivers have their headwaters in the county, and more than 1 million tourists visit each year to camp and hike and fish and ski. The mountains are Technicolor green in summer and patchwork orange in fall.

It is the birthplace of literature Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck, and hosts Allegheny Echoes, a local annual Bluegrass and Old-Time music institute to which people from all over the world travel to study under local teachers, one of whom now performs with Old Crow Medicine Show. In the mid 1970s, it was home to more than 200 Back to the Landers, and it was twice the host of the annual gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light. The county holds within its borders the Gesundheit! Institute, a hospital combining traditional and alternative medicines founded by Patch Adams, and the artist colony Zendik Farm. It has a thriving farmer’s market, where people can purchase fresh vegetables with food stamps. Since 1978, it has also been the headquarters of the National Alliance, the white supremacist group headed by William Pierce. Pocahontas County is spectacular. Pocahontas County is isolated. Pocahontas County is conservative. Pocahontas County is radical.

Much of Pocahontas County is steeply inclined forest and unsuitable to farm. West Virginia split from Virginia in 1863 to form its own state, voting against secession and joining Union forces. Most of West Virginia never formed the massive plantations of its mother Commonwealth and had little interest in, not to mention ideological objections to, slavery. “Let’s talk about the fact that that West Virginia was created as a state because of race issues,” Campbell says “Race is a really big part of our history.”

Pocahontas County is 96 percent white, 1 percent black and another 3 percent Latino or mixed race. According to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, “The first white settlers to the Pocahontas County area arrived in 1749 … By 1830 the US Census recorded 2,542 residents in the county, including 244 African Americans.” While most African-Americans arrived in the region as slaves, some were free, and others were granted their freedom upon the death of their owners. In the late 19th century, nearly 20 percent of West Virginia’s coal miners were black. In 1900, when railways reached Pocahontas County, African-Americans arrived in large numbers as part of rail line crews; still others worked in the industries of timbering or tanning.

After public schooling was mandated in 1863, one-room schoolhouses were built throughout Pocahontas County, including several schools for black children. According to annual reports from the state superintendent of schools, for the school year 1866-1867, there was one school owned by the county, which educated 888 white children. No black school was listed for the reported 88 black school-aged children. An expense report from the following year recorded expenses of $3,022.40, including $50 in salary and $6.34 in “other expenses” for one African-American school. By 1890 there were 72 schools including three for black students, and the report also mentions 38 male teachers, four of whom were African-American.

The West Virginia Division of Culture and Heritage again reports, “By the early 1900s, the public elementary level education system was well established in Pocahontas County. However, high school was not offered. For that, students had to leave the county or attend one of the several private schools which had opened in Pocahontas County in the late nineteenth century. There was no provision in the area at this time for African American students to obtain a high school education. Their education was limited to grades one through eight. If an African American student wished to pursue a high school education, they had to travel in order to attend Riverside High School in Elkins in Randolph County.”

When the Penny was vandalized, some residents were reminded of the county’s unequal history. Mike May, who grew up in town, responded to the incident by writing, “I was born and raised in Marlinton and left at age 18 simply because of the racist, sheltered, and uneducated thought process of more then half the county … Have you forgotten about William Pierce and the National Alliance? I haven't forgotten being called nigger, coon, or half breed HUNDREDS of times throughout high school.”

In 1978, the National Alliance, a white supremacist group with Nazi ideologies, moved its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Hillsboro, for reasons unknown. The organization has been largely defunct since 2009, most people say, and recently the compound has gone up for sale. Its official website asks all correspondence to be directed to an address in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee.

“We grew up in a fearful place,” says Sarah Riley, friend of Blair Campbell and director of High Rocks Educational Corp., an innovative leadership program for young women from southeastern West Virginia of which Campbell is an alumna. “There are families in Greenbrier County who won’t send their kids to High Rocks because they’re afraid for their safety.”

“I had nightmares about the National Alliance,” she continued. “When they showed up, there was nothing we could do. We didn’t want to mess with them, we were scared of their retaliation.”

Hannah Ormsbee, a young white woman who moved here from Greenbrier County with her boyfriend Frank, the aforementioned man of color whom Campbell employs as her chef, expressed worry. “Our children are biracial and I am afraid of what the future holds for them.” In the background, her daughter Sadie, who along with Campbell’s two kids is one of three children of color at Hillsboro Elementary, said, “People look at me funny because I am brown.”

“Frank’s friends won’t drive through here,” says Riley. “They’ll drive all the way up to White Sulphur to avoid it.”

“I think that’s a very real part of the culture that we live in, us against them,” Campbell says. “Because so many people have come from the outside into West Virginia and Appalachia historically and told us what to do.”

Heather Fox, a former Pocahontas County resident who now lives in Lewisburg, a quaint town in Greenbrier County right off I-64, wrote, “I am remembering … scrubbing words of hate off the playground equipment there once upon a time. I hate to see that things don't change much.”

But others say things are changing dramatically. Joanna Burt-Kinderman, sister to Sarah Riley, wrote in response, “Heather, when we were little, there were three of us. Now there are hundreds.”

At the time of this writing, the Facebook page that Campbell and Riley created for their campaign to unify the county in racial tolerance, “WeAreOne,” has 1,078 likes, and the Indiegogo campaign to raise money for yard signs, school and home banners, bracelets and T-shirts bearing the slogan was 670 percent funded in four days.

“Every black or brown friend of mine has been taunted, dismissed, harassed and threatened in Pocahontas County,” says Riley. “And if you're not sure, ask one of them. We can be real about that and still be proud of the beautiful things about our community. We can be more than one thing at once.”

Being a part of a small rural community in which people live in intense physical proximity and intimacy might actually illuminate the deep challenges and possibilities involved in racial progress. And the fact that the hate speech was directed against Campbell and her husband, by all accounts beloved members of Hillsboro and owners of a prominent business, is triggering change as it has never been triggered before. For few in the county can dispute Campbell’s history of service to the town. When a derecho wind storm in 2012 barreled through the region leaving residents without power or water for more than a week, the Pocahontas County Sheriff’s Department brought Campbell food from the local schools, and the Penny became the hub of relief efforts. Soon neighbors began showing up with freezers full of meat and vegetables that would rot without power, for Campbell to cook. With the help of many volunteers, the Penny cooked 3,444 meals in 54 hours over five days—about a meal a minute.

A “Love Fest” potluck to show support for Pretty Penny Café held at the Presbyterian Church was attended by more than 200 people, and the WeAreOne campaign appears to have serious legs. “When has there ever been an event actually about race in Pocahontas County?” Riley asks. “Never. But people care about Blair, they care about Charlan. This is the moment in time to ask people to say that publicly, and they are saying it.”

Frank Walker, Pretty Penny Cafe’s chef, says he is proud to work at the Penny, that Hillsboro is “one of the best places to be” and he has no plans to leave Pocahontas County. His favorite dish on the menu is the “Mountaineer Burger”—a burger with bacon, cheddar cheese and Blair’s barbecue sauce made from ramps, an onionlike delicacy local to the Appalachian mountains.

“I feel like the people who did this failed terribly and I believe the campaign is going to be something huge. It’s already launched and it looks like it’s going to be a success in making people aware that Hillsboro and West Virginia will not tolerate that kind of hate nor stand by and watch ignorance be taught to our future.”

The messages of support from the many young people who have left Pocahontas County—in search of jobs, or otherwise—flowed also. John Baxter, who grew up in Hillsboro and now lives in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, wrote, “I sincerely wish I could have been there to help with the clean up. To everyone involved in the clean up, thank you for showing me how strong my old stomping grounds are against the small minds that think it's funny or cool to do such a thing. Pennsylvania is with you as well.”

Pocahontas County, like many counties in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia has been steadily losing population since the early 1980s, particularly young people, and some say race is a factor in this “brain drain.” Kristen Garringer grew up in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties, but now lives in Ohio. "Pocahontas County is the most important place on the planet to me," she says. "It's the place that has most shaped who I am and what I care about. I would like to share my home with important people in my life who are of color, but in the past I have worried about bringing them here." However, the WeAreOne response might be signaling real change. "The answering message of unity -- we are one -- tells me that returning with friends and partners of color is an option, and that it doesn't have to be a difficult experience."

A church in Hillsboro that was used historically as either a church or school for a community of some 70 to 80 African-American residents is currently being restored and was rededicated at last year’s Heritage Days, an annual Hillsboro town fair.

The Penny has been closed since November, but is planning a big reopening on Saturday, Feb. 7, to celebrate Campbell’s idol Bob Marley, and raise funds for the future of the café.

Campbell, Sarah Riley and Frank all expressed hope that what has happened in Hillsboro might serve to illuminate racial progress and help communities begin to have more honest conversations in other rural places in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia.

“There is public support to make people of color feel welcome in our community,” says Riley. “We want Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and beyond to be the first place people of color want to live and go on vacation.”

“Change is the only consistent thing we have,” Campbell says, talking from her home down a small tree-lined street in Hillsboro. There is dinner to make for Oliver and Penelope and then she expects to get to work on planning the café’s reopening festivities. Her husband, Charlan, is away learning to be a long-haul trucker. Conversations she’s had about these events with the owner of the town gas station, her children’s teachers and her friends loom large, then recede for the night. “Let’s take this as an opportunity to have a bigger conversation about this area. The future for Pocahontas county is really bright if we can do that. This is my world.”

By Emma Eisenberg

Emma Copley Eisenberg writes about gender, queerness, Appalachia and crime for places like The New Republic, Granta, Slate, Salon, The Marshall Project, and others. Say hello @EmmaEisenberg or at emmacopleyeisenberg.com.

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Pretty Penny Cafe Race The South Weareone West Virginia