Prominent West Virginia newspaper publisher and politician Matthew Thomas Whittico was born near Martinsville, in Henry County, Virginia, on September 25, 1866. His father, Hezekiah J. Whittico, was a farmer and was the son of Thomas and Catherine Whittico. Under a statute of the period, the condition of the colored child followed that of the mother. Somewhere in Mr. Whittico’s line of ancestry was a free mother, so his parents and grandparents were free.
As a boy, young Whittico attended the local public schools, but he aspired to higher education. Eventually, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, earning his A. B. degree in 1896. Whittico then taught for seven years in the racially segregated schools of Henry and Patrick counties, Virginia.
Whittico moved to Keystone, West Virginia, around 1900 and joined a thriving interracial business community in the booming coal town. He launched the McDowell Times, dedicated to “the interest of the Negro Race-His Social and Political Rights.” The paper became one of the region’s most prominent African American newspapers, boasting a circulation of eleven thousand.
Whittico served as the editor and publisher of the McDowell Times for 17 years. The paper circulated well beyond McDowell County and, for a time, was the state’s preeminent African-American newspaper, read by Black and White West Virginians interested in race issues and life in the coalfield.
Labor demands of nearby coal mines brought many Blacks to the region. Whittico helped mold these voters into a significant voting bloc in West Virginia Republican politics. Whittico was critical of Socialist and labor movements in the area and voiced support for the coal industry.
Active in the Republican Party, Whittico, for years, was a member of the State Republican Executive Committee. He also served as County Probation Officer in McDowell County and as a member of the Keystone City Council.
Whittico belonged to the Presbyterian Church and was prominent in the work of the Masons, Pythians, Odd Fellows, and Elks. He was President of the Odd Fellows’ Investment Society, Advocate of the local Council St. Luke’s, and a director of the Pythian Mutual Investment Association.
Whittico was twice married. His first marriage was in 1899 to Annie M. Lamkin of Henry County, Virginia. The second marriage was in 1913 to Eda E. Alexander, daughter of Joseph and Julia Alexander of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and a West Virginia Collegiate Institute graduate.
Mr. Whittico’s favorite books were the Bible, Pilgrims’ Progress, and the Life of Lincoln. He promoted “buying homes, education, going into business, establishing a more kindly relation with white man…learning to economize and stop aping the rich.”
His younger brother, James Malachi Whittico, established himself as a physician and civic leader in Williamson, West Virginia.
The character of M. T. Whittico contributed to the development of fictional figures in Denise Giardina’s 1987 coalfields novel, Storming Heaven, which includes an influential Black newspaper editor.
Whittico is credited with popularizing the phrase, ‘‘Free State of McDowell,’’ in his work to establish African American rights and influence in the racially diverse county.
Matthew T. Whittico died in Bluefield on June 21, 1939, at 72, and was buried in his native Henry County, Virginia. The McDowell Times ceased publication shortly after his death in 1939. The newspaper has been digitized by West Virginia University and can be viewed on Chronicling America’s website.