John Gee Black Historical Center

Everyone has a story to tell. Every person living or dead has something valuable to share. It’s those stories that make up the fabric of who we are as people and as a culture. That’s what history is about.

History class teaches us to learn names and dates but memorizing facts isn’t what makes history meaningful. It’s the stories of the people, both the extraordinary and the ordinary, that make our history rich.

Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with the John Gee Black Historical Center in Gallipolis. It’s located in the John Gee African Methodist Episcopal Chapel near downtown.

The church and its builder have entire stories of their own which I will share another day. For today’s purpose, what you need to know is that this lovely old church was transformed into a history center.

Let’s start with some questions.

Have you ever heard of Ohio’s Black Laws? Did you know that blacks once had to register to live in Ohio? Did you know that schools, movie theaters and swimming pools in Ohio were segregated just the same as those in the south? Have you ever heard of blue vein laws?

Have you ever considered the terror that an escaped slave felt when they stood on the shores of the Kanawha River and fled to Ohio in search of freedom? Where did they go? Who helped them?

These are just a few of the things you will learn about when you visit.

I really didn’t know what to expect when I walked through those doors. What I found were two lovely ladies who welcomed me like an old friend.

The walls are lined with glass cases, photos and artifacts. The ladies accompanied me, telling me about John Gee who was considered a respectable black man, a great carpenter and a community minded citizen. What most people didn’t know is that he spent his free time and his own resources aiding folks on the run.

They shared stories about artifacts and gave an overview of what it was like to be a black person in Ohio in the nineteenth century. Ohio was a free state but it wasn’t a welcoming state. In fact, our government made it difficult and expensive for a black person to become established. So they were ok to pass through as long as they didn’t think about staying which is why so many chose Canada as their fresh start destination.

The Center has all kinds of interesting things including an exhibit about the Tuskegee Airmen. This includes the uniform of Major Henry A. Norman, a local gentleman who was a Tuskegee pilot.

See an exhibit on how quilts were used as a means of communication, aiding escaped slaves along their journey to freedom. Learn about education during segregation and about the local Lincoln Colored School.

They have a handwritten letter that verified the freedom of a former slave. This document had clearly been folded and carried, the very lifeline necessary to maintain his freedom.

They also have copies of classified ads from the Gallipolis newspaper in the early nineteenth century. These ads describe escaped slaves much the same as you would describe a lost dog or cat.

As my guides talked, I marveled at the wealth of information before me and at the tone of the conversation. In a world where dividing people because of their politics or race is common, the conversations are often overpowered by emotion rather than fact. I feel overwhelmed by people who spit out their opinions without knowing enough facts to even have an opinion. I am discouraged by people who shrug off the problems in this country today because it happened a long time ago and it wasn’t their fault.

My guides told me stories. Their stories were about the black experience in America and specifically in Ohio over a period of many years. These stories are so different than my own and they are a far cry from what kids learn in history class.

We teach history like it was a long time ago but, the truth is, the Civil War and slavery are not so far removed from us today. They live on through stories and prejudices handed down by our grandparents who heard them from their grandparents. Segregation was a reality for many folks living today as was the Civil Rights movement.

Remnants of these events echo through our country today and we still live with their consequences – both good and bad.

No one made me feel guilty for being white. They made me feel welcome. They were eager to have an audience willing to learn. I was glad to learn about people whose stories have been lost to time or blatantly ignored by textbooks. The history taught here is all our histories.

Other volunteers arrived for a shift change before I left so I got to meet more people. One gentleman recalled a teacher he had in the fifties who referred to black students as “descendants of ex slaves.”

I was incredulous that this is the terminology a teacher would choose. He said she was an older woman at the time. It’s hard to tell what other terrible things she thought and what stories had been handed down to her from parents and grandparents who remembered how things were before the war.

Friends, I learned so much that I can’t begin to share it all here. It’s this kind of learning that excites me and that I think makes us all better citizens of the world. It’s when we consider someone else’s perspective that we truly begin to understand our own.

At one point, I knelt down to study pictures of children in segregated schools and my mind inexplicably wandered back to Virginia where I toured a plantation home in 2020.

That story never made this blog because I was so taken aback that I couldn’t bring myself to write it.

That plantation was built and run by slaves. It wouldn’t have existed without them. Somehow, our tour guide managed to show us around almost the entire home without mentioning the slave experience. It wasn’t until we reached the kitchen that he told us about the slave woman who raised a dozen or more children while cooking for the family and everyone who lived here.

The guide spoke for a few minutes about what it was like to run such a kitchen. Then he clapped his hands together and exclaimed “but no one came here to talk about slavery” before ushering us out the door.

I was too appalled at the time to even know what to say because I did visit that plantation to hear about slavery. Why else would you go to a plantation? Of all places, that historic site has an opportunity to start a productive dialog about things that are challenging to discuss in normal daily life.

These conversations can be uncomfortable but the folks at the John Gee Black Historical Center illustrate just how meaningful it can be when we have them.

As a personal favor to me, walk through those doors and listen. Look around. Learn. Make friends. The world would be a better place if we could normalize learning from one another.

I adored these people and this place and hope to go back another day. I had so many questions that I didn’t get around to asking or couldn’t quite verbalize at the time. Plus, I heard and saw more than I could absorb in a day.

Another time.

Meanwhile, you can find them on Facebook and visit their website. Rest assured, I’ll write more about this place. They are typically open on Friday and Saturday but check their Facebook page to make sure they are open the day you plan to go. Admission is free but I encourage you to drop a few bucks in their donation box.

Nothing More Dangerous

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. Martin. Luther King Jr.

Be curious about the world. Talk to people who are different than you. Listen and try to understand their worldview. Trust that there is a lot you don’t know. Stand up for the underdog. Know that your place in the world is quite small and that what is done to another group could be done to you too. Embrace your own humanity and try to do better. Try to be better. Practice who and what you want to be. Learn. Be teachable. Reject ignorance and stupidity. Be kind. Reject anyone who tells you to do otherwise.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther Ling Jr. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

It was a privilege to stand before the national monument to this great leader this year. Click here to read about the experience.

Can’t go? That’s ok. You can help keep the dream alive in your own family, your own neighborhood and your own community by leading with an example of kindness to all. Think you can’t manage that? Then at least get out of the way of those who are trying.

A Memorial Fit For A King

One stop on the nighttime bus tour that we took in DC was the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.

There are few places that strike awe in my heart these days but this is one of them. It’s a newer memorial, opened in 2011, and one that I had not seen. Visiting at night was a great choice.

Visitors approach through two enormous boulders called the Mountain of Despair, emerging to find themselves facing an enormous rock called the Stone of Hope. Walk around that boulder and you’ll find the likeness of Dr. King breaking through the stone. It’s as though he is stepping out of the rock and into a realm of freedom.

He stares across the Tidal Basin, looking toward none else than the Jefferson Memorial. The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are visible from here too.

At thirty feet tall, Dr. King is imposing and the expression on his face is one of determination. At least, that’s how I see it.

A 450 foot inscription wall surrounds Dr. King and features fourteen quotes from his sermons, speeches and other writings. Justice, democracy, hope and love are the themes here and the guiding principles that are his legacy these 53 years after his death.

I especially appreciate when memorials use the person’s own words to relate their story.

Perhaps it was the lighting and the darkness playing tricks on my eyes but it appeared he could begin speaking or even take a step forward at any minute.

I stood in awe of this man who was larger than life in his lifetime and who has been immortalized as a giant among men all these years later. So many times I have wondered how different our world might be if not for that terrible day an assassin’s bullet silenced this brilliant soul at the Lorraine Motel .

This memorial is open 24 hours but note that it isn’t super well lit. That makes it a little hard to read some of the inscriptions but it also makes the experience of seeing the big picture here feel even more significant.

My solution? Go at night and during the day! I didn’t see this one up close in the daylight but can promise you that these places are always drastically different night and day and certainly worth a trip both times.

Remembering Dr. King and the National Civil Rights Museum

Today we celebrate the life, teachings and sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If he had not been cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, he would be 91 now. He would have elderly children, grandkids and great grandkids. It’s hard to picture when you consider the timeless images of a young man like the one above.

Here he is with his wife and first child. It brings to mind the famous quote that we all have heard.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

You have to wonder how much different the world and our country might be had he lived longer.

Today I thought we should visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. First of all, Memphis is one of my favorite places because there is music and history and culture and mac and cheese at every turn. Seriously, the abundance of homemade mac and cheese is pretty spectacular.

But it’s also home to this museum that beautifully and skillfully tells the story behind the movement.

Among other things, the museum has preserved the Loraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered. You can see his room and the balcony where he stood when bullets were fired from a boarding house across the street. Incidentally, you can tour that boarding house as well.

Visiting here was a sobering, humbling experience that sort of put a damper on the fun of all that music and food. But friends, I would go back today if given the opportunity and I would highly recommend it to you as well.

Facing history gives us the opportunity to learn from our past, to humanize those people we read about in text books and to hopefully do better tomorrow. And if nothing else, a place like this instills in us a new sense of empathy and understanding that we may not have known on our own.

Want to visit the National Civil Rights Museum? Click here for details. If you wish to ponder the teachings and thoughts of Dr. King, this is a good source for quotes.

Reflections On The Rosa Parks Bus

When planning a day at the Henry Ford Museum, there was one thing I really wanted to do. I wanted to have a few uninterrupted minutes on the Rosa Parks bus.

To make this wish a reality, I was there when they opened and then headed straight for this exhibit.

For the benefit of my international friends, Rosa Parks was a pioneer in the American Civil Rights movement. In 1955, when segregation ruled the American south, she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. The police were called and this mild mannered African American seamstress was led off to jail.

She became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for over a year and forced the desegregation of the city’s buses.

The Henry Ford Museum confirmed the authenticity of the bus and outbid some major players (including the Smithsonian) to the tune of $492,000. However, after sitting outside for about thirty years, the bus required a massive restoration project that cost another $300,000. As you can tell, they really wanted to preserve this piece of history.

And honestly, they did a great job.

Sitting there, I kept thinking it could be 1955 just as easily as it was 2019. The bus is immaculate but it’s not just a museum piece. You are welcomed aboard and invited to sit a while. You can even sit in her seat.

The docent was good at his job, answering my questions and relating the story for me. He even took my picture.

However, he also gave me time to sit quietly and absorb the magnitude of this space and of the actions of one woman, who on that one day, said enough is enough. History was made with that split second decision, made under the glare of a white driver who was known for being unfriendly to his black passengers on a good day.

A hastily organized boycott crippled the city bus system and forced changes into law. She wasn’t seeking fame or money or publicity of any kind. She didn’t appreciate the attention she received but later said she was just tired of giving in.

With all that is happening in our country today and with leaders who seem to encourage the divide between races, there was something reassuring about sitting in her seat. It was a great reminder that a 42 year old seamstress could start a revolution because she was tired of giving in.

The moment felt both sacred and peaceful.

I had that bus all to myself for several minutes before anyone else arrived and I was grateful for every passing second. Still, it was gratifying to walk by later in the day to find the bus full of a diverse group of people who wanted to have the experience too.

The bus is part of a larger exhibit that covers segregation and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time the museum bought the bus, they also acquired a scrapbook containing a number of news clippings you can read. There are some interactive features here and some truly disturbing things including a flier for a cross burning that sounds like an invitation to a Sunday school picnic rather than a hate rally.

I felt sorrow that our country hasn’t advanced more than it has and I felt gratitude for the progress we have made, even knowing there are plenty of people who would look at such hateful materials and think they’re ok.

If you find your way to the Henry Ford Museum, make time for this exhibit. Read the materials, watch the videos, listen to the songs and think about what it all means.

Sixty-five years ago sounds like a long time but it isn’t that long at all. We have plenty of people living in this country today who remember all too well not being allowed to eat in a restaurant, drink from a water fountain or use a waiting room because of the color of their skin.

After Rosa Parks stood up for her beliefs by sitting down, close to another decade passed before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law changing all of that for good.

But while the law guarantees equality, racial divide is still far too great in this country. I’m as white as can be and I do not take responsibility for things that happened before me but I do think it’s my right and duty to contribute something positive to the world I live in now. I can’t change the past but I can help change the future by showing kindness and empathy and by celebrating our similarities rather than complain about the differences.

The last words today go to Rosa herself.

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.”