A professor from Kenyon College told an audience at a Delaware County Historical Society program there are hidden communities in rural Ohio whose stories need to be told.
“There have always been African-Americans in Mount Vernon,” said Ric Sheffield Wednesday night in The Barn at Stratford in Delaware. “Since 1808. Not a large number, but we’ve been here.”
Sheffield and his family are from the county seat of Knox County, but he was the only African-American in his high school graduating class. Growing up, he said he was poor but didn’t realize it and never went to bed hungry. He said he didn’t have an African-American classmate until he attended Case Western Reserve University.
A chance encounter at a Mount Vernon Big Bear made Sheffield aware of how minority populations can be invisible in a community, even in rural Ohio. An older white man said, “You’re not from around here, are you?” Sheffield said he was and had lived locally much of his life, and he asked the man same question. Shocked, the man said he, too, was a lifelong resident of Mount Vernon.
This led Sheffield and his students to be interested in the history of African-Americans in Mount Vernon. The research culminated in a historical exhibit and a book.
Many of the people he talked to during the process said, “Help us to reclaim our past. We have to tell this story.”
Sheffield said that African-Americans came to rural Ohio in search of employment, and they were often employed in unskilled positions. Segregation meant they socialized in separate settings, including churches and even at events such as the “Miss Bronze Ohio” beauty pageant.
The exclusionary treatment extended to athletics, Sheffield said. For example, the Mount Vernon Giants were an all-black baseball squad who once played a barnstorming team led by pitcher Satchell Paige. Other famous African-American visitors to Mount Vernon included abolitionist Frederick Douglass and singer Marian Anderson.
Similar historical research on other minority communities is ongoing for the Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern populations in Mount Vernon, Sheffield said.
At the end of his presentation, one of the audience members said his young life in Lucas County was similar to Sheffield’s, and thanked him for the “therapy session.”
Sheffield will speak about “African American Voting” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Merrick Hall, Room 301.
The next Delaware County Historical Society presentation is “Voices of the Underground Railroad” at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1, in The Barn at Stratford, 2690 Stratford Road. For more information, visit delawareohiohistory.org.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.