Exiles from the South in Search of the Promised Land
By Dominick Paul Cerrone
Like many northern cities, Wheeling became a mecca for thousands of African-Americans who emigrated from the agrarian South to find a better life through working in industry. However, Wheeling was a paradox for the black community. While the city was host to fervent abolitionists during the Civil War, it still was a city of Virginians. Some of those were slave holders, and most of those slaves landed as domestic servants, since the city’s wealth was in enterprise and not in land holdings. It would, therefore, come as no surprise that Wheeling’s great legacy as a vital link of the Underground Railroad was sullied by the active slave auction at the 10th Street market. Therefore, for many coming from the cotton and tobacco plantations of the Deep South, the Promised Land was still an elusive place when they arrived in Wheeling.
While West Virginia had renounced the Confederacy in its brighter days through the Wheeling Conventions that led to statehood, the newly formed state lurched back into the grip of southern culture when it adapted the Jim Crow Laws. Wheeling was, therefore, a cruel nirvana, where previous slaves had the opportunity to partake in an explosive Northern industrial economy while mired in the bigotry of the Old South.
Ann Thomas is a Wheeling native whose parents settled in Wheeling from Sanford and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her mom was one of 14. “The kids were all tired of farming and tobacco and cotton,” she recalls. They arrived in a community with several distinct black communities that had no choice but to support their own businesses since segregated facilities were the law of the land on this side of the Ohio River. “I was allowed to go into Louis Hot Dogs to buy a hotdog but could not sit down,” she explained. “The Jim Crow Laws were enforced here in Wheeling.” Her aunt and uncle ran a restaurant in one of those black neighborhoods that stretched from the old Lincoln School on Chapline Street to 12th Street extended. Boarding houses (blacks could not use hotels), the Fedo movie theatre, an African-American YWCA, and Doc White’s Pharmacy were all part of that vibrant neighborhood. The Lincoln School was a blacks only school that educated not only Wheelingites, but also students shipped in from Moundsville and Wellsburg. On Monday nights, Ann and her neighborhood friends went to the Market Street auditorium on 10th Street. It was the one night of the week that was dedicated to blacks.
Whenever Ann returned to the South with her parents to visit her relative’s tobacco and cotton farm, the distance between northern industrial workers and southern farmers disappeared. For Ann, that meant playing dolls with her cousins. “Sports also transgressed differences. All the kids would get together to play sports.” Despite the two families’ profoundly different plights, they were in many ways still essentially the same.
As segregated as Wheeling was, things were very different across the river. Ohio had a long tradition of Quakers and abolitionists who had influence over public policy, and facilities there were largely integrated. Ann recalls how her husband, Clyde, had a very different experience in his hometown of Bellaire, where he attended Bellaire High School with every other student in the city, and could walk into any restaurant or bus.
Before the 1930s, the steel mills did not hire African-Americans. Accordingly, most newcomers from the South found work in the coal mines, and that spurred several black communities that started out as coal camps. Black coal camps uphill from the Centre Foundry in south Warwood and in Triadelphia popped up around the turn of the century. To this day, there is an active black community in Triadelphia.
According to Sean Duffy’s The Wheeling Family Volume 2, there was an active group of professionals in Wheeling’s black community to serve their community, including a handful of doctors, dentists and pharmacists.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Wheeling served as a hub of protest activity. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, the city was close to rioting, and peace was fragile. Duffy documents Wheeling resident Diana Bell’s memory of that tense time. “We had to write ‘Souls Sisters’ on our house,” she recalled, in order for her family to be spared from any potential vandalism in the case of a riot.
Eventually, legalized segregation was outlawed. Shortly after the Jim Crow Laws ceased after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, urban renewal ushered in a new attack on the black community. Ann’s childhood neighborhood on Chapline Street was largely demolished, and many African-Americans relocated to the adjacent neighborhoods of East Wheeling, North Wheeling and Wheeling Island. Ann and her husband, Clyde, moved to North Park.
To this day, Wheeling is home to one of the state’s largest black communities. Census data indicates that over 1,500 African-Americans live in Ohio County. The metropolitan area has strong communities in Bellaire and Bridgeport, Ohio. Black businesses, churches, an annual African American Jubilee and a host of special activities bind the black community together.