MOUNT VERNON — The importance of black history on the local level was the topic of a discussion titled, “Celebrating Black History Month 2013 — The African American Experience in Knox County, Ohio,” on Saturday afternoon at the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County. Facilitator of the event was Ric Sheffield.
Sheffield was raised in the Mount Vernon area and is professor of legal studies and sociology at Kenyon College. He has been researching black history in Knox County for nearly 20 years and is the founder of a website dedicated to black history digital archives in Knox County.
“This is a celebration of local African-American history,” said Sheffield about the purpose of Saturday’s program. “Black history is important to lots of people in American society. Many communities across the nation now recognize the importance of Black History Month. Learning at the national level is great. But we want to place a greater emphasis on the very significant events that have occurred in Knox County.”
Noting that when he was growing up there was not much opportunity to learn about black history, Sheffield’s presentation began with references to those who have been in the national spotlight of black history. These included the accomplishments of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and others. “These are all names that not only we know and grew up knowing, but many of our neighbors and community members know these names as well,” said Sheffield.
“The problem for me is that when we talk about black history, we should be talking about it 365 ... not just one month each year, but every day of the year. There should be an effort to educate young Americans,” he said, adding that this should apply not just to black people but to white people as well. “And we need to talk locally. Black people were here and are here and have done some very significant things.”
Numerous references were made to the Black Heritage Series stamps printed by the United States Postal Service. “If I were to come up with Black History stamps, I would come up with stamps of individuals who have significance and importance to people in this community,” said Sheffield.
Sheffield then shared accounts of some very notable black citizens from Knox County. These included Ben and Lew Snowden, accomplished local musicians in the 1800s; Viola Booker, who was active in numerous clubs and organizations, and was the first black nurse to practice in Mount Vernon; and Jean Payne, who was the first black nurse at Kenyon College.
Mention was also made of those who have excelled in the local athletic arena as well. Some of these athletes mentioned as local sports heroes were Gene Rouse, Jim Byrd and Tonya Booker. Sheffield also mentioned those famous in black history who have visited Mount Vernon — Frederick Douglas, Marion Anderson and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Sheffield spoke highly on the history of the black church in Mount Vernon. A timeline was shared of significant events pertinent to local black history. These included the construction of the A.M.E. Church on Ohio Avenue in 1873; formation of the Baptist Mission in Mount Vernon; construction of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in 1914; and charter of the first local all black chapter of the American Red Cross in 1918. Numerous photos were shared on a video screen of local historic events, with many of the photos including family members or even those personally who were in attendance.
Emotions ran high when an audio recording from 1948 was played of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church choir singing “Steal Away.” “That’s part of the treasure from this community that we’ve been able to save and preserve ... the music of our people,” said Sheffield.
In closing, “This is about the commemorations of not forgetting the importance of not just black history, but local black history,” said Sheffield. “There is so much and so many rich, important pieces that we need to continue to discover and share with the entire community.”
Sheffield encouraged those in attendance to take in the black history exhibition currently on display at the Knox County Historical Society Museum. “Black history is fine, but we need to keep this alive to make it available and accessible to people,” he said. He also invited everyone to visit the black history digital archives website he and his students at Kenyon College have developed over many years. This can be seen by going to http://communitywithin.kenyon.edu/.
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