WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — As the old saying goes, to know how someone really feels, walk a mile in their shoes.
The new “Civic Empathy Through History” exhibit at the Ohio County Public Library might not have any shoes, but it does have artifacts from a very dark past: shackles, a ball and chain, a branding iron and an owner badge, all used on slaves in the 1800s.
Just the sight of the objects is jolting. It makes the history one has heard and read in books all the more real.
The objects — on loan from the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing — are part of the new exhibit on display at the library in Wheeling.
The exhibit was created in collaboration with the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. It is centered around the 1936 radio address, titled “Wheeling’s 20th Man,” by Harry Jones, who was Wheeling’s only Black attorney at the time.
He made his address on WWVA, the city’s white-owned radio station, and talked about the conditions in which the city’s Black population was living because of the inequality of Jim Crow segregation laws.
He was trying to appeal to the station’s white audience to consider making a change.
The speech’s title, “Wheeling’s 20th Man” referred to the Black population representing 1/20th or 5% of the city’s population at that time.
The entire text of Jones’ speech is on display at the library. One can also read the speech at a small digital kiosk in front of the display. There is also a QR code one can download onto their cell phone. Headphones are also available at the library circulation desk to allow patrons to listen to the speech as read by Ron Scott, director of cultural diversity and community outreach at the Wheeling YWCA.
Scott also wrote a modern-day version of Jones’ speech that can be read or listened to at the library. It is on display on the backside of the exhibit. One can also scan a QR code to download it onto their phone. It is titled “Acceptance, Understanding and Opportunity. The 20th Man That Stands Before You.”
Sean Duffy, programming director and local history specialist for the Ohio County Public Library, said the exhibit was developed with help from Robert Stakeley, program coordinator with Heinz History Center Affiliates.
“It took a lot of courage for him to go on the radio with thousands of people listening,” Duffy said of Jones, noting his speech when read is about seven minutes long. “He pointed out the unfairness and inequality of Jim Crow which was meant to be ‘separate but equal’ that divided our community.”
The goal of the exhibit is to not only educate people but to help heal the wounds created by slavery and racism, and to spark empathy and understanding in people.
Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott was on hand to help open the exhibit.
“Projects like this, I think, are a great hope to give us a window into stepping into someone else’s shoes,” Elliott said.
Scott said when he asked to participate in the project, he jumped at the chance to do so.
“I was amazed with how creative he was with it,” Scott said of Jones’ speech. “He gave you details about what the struggle was like then. But I loved the way he looped it all around to say, yes, this is how bad it is for us, but this is how good it could be for all of us. With just a few changes – how you treat, how you talk, how you accept, how you acknowledge.
“He brought it all around in his speech so you feel the pain, but you also feel his hope because there was a lot of that in his speech.”
In his version of the speech Scott did not want to stray too far from Jones’ address, but he also wanted to leave people with hope, too.
“I wanted you to leave with enough hope to say, ‘We can change, we should change and we will change,’” he said.
The exhibit opening was followed by a special Lunch With Books program featuring a discussion between Scott and Tom DeWolfe, author of “The Little Book of Racial Healing” and “Inheriting the Trade,” which is a book that talks about the making of the PBS documentary, Traces of Trade. The documentary is about how DeWolfe’s family had the largest slave trading company in United States History. Wolfe, who traveled from his home state of Oregon to participate in the library event, is also executive director of the non-profit Coming to the Table.
DeWolfe noted people have more in common than they realize if they just take the time to talk to each other and listen. All people, no matter their race, religion or gender, want to be loved and respected, he said.