Looking Back

A recent trip to the John Gee Black Historical Center got me thinking about this story from Concord Church near Frankfort, Ohio two years ago. It’s a moving place and worth a revisit. Click here to have a read and give it some thought.

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.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

The love of my country will be the ruling influence of my conduct… George Washington

I got to touch George Washington’s handrail while climbing the stairs at his Virginia home Mount Vernon. George Washington walked these stairs and maybe touched this handrail himself.

To be fair, everyone on the tour did the same and you could too. In fact, people have probably been touching Washington’s handrail since the house became a tourist destination over 150 years ago.

Even knowing that it’s an option available to the masses, it still felt like a special experience. After all, when you go on historic home tours you are typically asked to refrain from touching or photographing anything. In fact, they would likely prefer you didn’t breathe in some of those houses if that were a reasonable request.

Yet Mount Vernon is incredibly accessible. Tours are small and non-flash photography is encouraged. They invite guests to sit a spell on the back porch – listen to how Appalachian I am! They call it a piazza.

While Washington is the quintessential founding father of our nation, it is women who have protected and preserved his home for the public to enjoy all these years after his death.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association acquired the home in 1858. They bought it from Washington’s great-grand nephew and have since set the gold star for preservation, restoration and public accessibility for important historic homes.

A century later, those ladies caught wind that an oil tank farm was rumored for the banks of the Potomac River. This development would destroy the incredible view from the mansion’s piazza. Mrs. Frances Payne Bolton, Vice Regent for Ohio of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, purchased nearly 500 acres of that land which led her to organize one of the nation’s earliest land trusts.

President Kennedy would later sign into law the creation of the Piscataway National Park thus preserving this spectacular shoreline.

Restoration work is still constant and there is a great sense of care about the work being done here.

All walks of life tour this site every year. You hear lots of accents and other languages here. When my friend and I emerged from the path that leads from the visitor center to the home we were staring at the view made so famous by postcards, movies, textbooks and even commemorative plates.

We stood there absorbing the moment, each of us likely revisiting memories of what the house means to us. I was grateful to still have this place with its stately design and driveway lined with enormous old trees. It feels historic and it feels important.

This home, the estate and the man mean different things to different people. Washington is immortalized in a familiar portrait on our money and in a host of other ways. He was a smart man, always thinking and evolving, and not afraid to change his mind when new information became available.

There are many stories I could tell you from my visit here and some that I may circle back to another day. However, one thing that stands out in my memories is standing inside a building used for slave quarters. I believe it held bunk beds for ten. The space was sparse and depressing, fitting for a place that once held humans in bondage.

I cannot fathom what it was like to live here. I cannot imagine what it was like to be a wealthy white person whose livelihood and success, whose everyday life depended on the institution of slavery.

Everything they had, everything they hoped to be was possible because of the hundreds of enslaved souls who worked here throughout Washington’s life.

I read that Washington accepted slavery when he was a young man but began to question it after the Revolutionary War. He chose to keep his thoughts to himself for fear of dividing our young country. In his will, Washington ordered that his slaves be freed following his wife Martha’s death. I can’t help but wonder how things might be different had he expressed his views during his lifetime.

The tour here is exceptional. I appreciate that they tackle some tough issues factually and without apology while defining Washington’s place in our history.

If you go, there’s a great museum that I’ll tell you about another day. You can visit the final resting place of the President and First Lady while touring the grounds. There’s a cafe and a food truck and a fantastic gift shop with an amazing book section.

You could literally spend an entire day here if you wish and I wouldn’t blame you because it’s so well done.