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West Virginia History: Elizabeth Simpson Drewry

By Rebecca Hinkle
On February 27, 2018
The small town of Welch in McDowell County, West Virginia is a quiet town, but like many small towns there is a rich history. In Welch, an African-American woman who fought for teachers, workers, and women’s rights grew up, worked, and lived to make the state a better place for everyone. 
 
Elizabeth Simpson Drewry was the first African-American woman elected to the West Virginia Legislature. Drewry was born on Sept. 22, 1893 in Motley, Virginia. As a small child, she moved over 100 miles to Elkhorn, West Virginia with her father, mother, and nine siblings. Her family was part of the earliest generation of the Great Migration, which was the movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. 
 
Grant Simpson, her father, owned and operated a barber shop. Drewry became a young mother at the age of 14 years old to a daughter and began her career teaching in the coal camps when she was 17 years old in Elkhorn in 1910. During this time, schools were racially segregated and Drewry worked in the McDowell County public school system at an African-American school. 
 
“She was a part of NAACP and the UMWA,” says James Leedy, an archivist and staff librarian for Bluefield State College. She received her education from Bluefield Colored Institute, Wilberforce University, University of Cincinnati, and Drewry got her degree in Elementary Education from Bluefield State College in 1933.  
 
At the start of her political career she started as a Republican precinct poll worker in 1921, and she later changed her political party affiliation to Democrat in 1936 and worked with the Federation of Teachers, American Red Cross, the McDowell County Public Library, Norfolk Town Council, and the McDowell County Democratic Executive Committee. She worked with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the National Association of Colored Women to help needy women and children. 
 
In 1948, Drewry ran for the House of Delegates for the first time and lost the primary election to Harry Pauley of Iaeger but won a spot on the Democrat ticket in 1950 and in the general election she got nearly 18,000 votes, which made her the first African-American woman elected to the West Virginia Legislature. 
 
Drewry spent 13 years in legislature. In her first term, she helped to expose a scandal involving attempted bribery of legislatures and coal operators. During her career she attracted attention from Charleston, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for her support of coal miners. In 1955 she introduced legislation that would allow women to start serving on juries in West Virginia, and this lead to the creation of the 1956 constitutional amendment that would allow women on juries. West Virginia was one of the last states to allow women to serve on juries. 
“The work that she did was exceptional. She was really ahead of her time,” says Jay Chapman, the President of the McDowell County Historical Society and the Kimball Rotary Club. He is also a coal and railroad historian for McDowell County. “She is part of McDowell County,” says Chapman. There is an apartment building named after her in Keystone. 
 
Ebony magazine named her as one of the ten outstanding African-American women in government. Drewry was married William H. Drewry, a professor of Bluefield State College, and he passed away in Chicago in 1951. Drewry had to retire in 1964 due to health issues but was still active with her church. She passed away in Welch at 85 years old on Sept. 24, 1979. Drewry stressed education to try and end racial injustice during a time of prejudice and racial segregation to make the country and state a better place to live for future generations. 

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