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.
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.