The conference aims to educate about black life in the Ohio Valley
Ric Sheffield never intended to write his book “We Got By: A Black Family’s Journey in the Heartland”. Nonetheless, the Emeritus Professor of Legal Studies and Sociology at Kenyon College began writing his family’s stories when he was unable to visit his mother in the summer of 2020.
“We were in the middle of a pandemic,” Sheffield said. “It changed my life partly because my mother, who was in a care home at the time, was failing. And for part of that time I couldn’t see her because everything was closed.
Sheffield said he realized he might never see his mother in person again and thought of all the wonderful stories from her life that could be passed down from generation to generation. And when the Ohio State University Press editors read the stories, it brought one to tears.
“If you can move someone who doesn’t know your family at all, that means they don’t have to know those people,” Sheffield said. “It’s not about celebrities. These are not people who have been in the history books. They are just ordinary people, but their life experience can be such that people relate to them.
Storytelling can be a powerful tool to get people to listen to the lives of people who are deliberately ignored and unnoticed in the history and regions of the United States. An upcoming conference organized by the Center for Human Sciences of the Central Region called Black Lives Matter in the Ohio Valley will bring visibility to black experiences in this region, which spans Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Virginia. From September 9-10, anyone can attend the conference and listen to all of its speakers for free at the Baker University Center Theater.
The conference keynote will be delivered by Sheffield on September 10 at 11 a.m. His talk titled “Diversity in the Heart of the Country: Exploring the Growth and Impact of Rural Diversity on Small Town Ohio Cultures and People” ties in with the theme of his book. Sheffield’s book shares her experiences of what it’s like growing up in a predominantly white, rural community in Ohio. Part of her experience is always being the only student of color in her classes.
“I’m going to talk a lot at this conference about discomfort and how white people, in rural America in particular, are really uncomfortable with racial concepts,” Sheffield said. “They think it doesn’t really apply to them.”
There are people who will wonder if black people live in their rural and small towns in the United States, Sheffield said. And that’s an example of invisibility that Sheffield talks about in his work.
“There’s almost no place where there haven’t been black people, but at the same time it’s an invisibility,” Sheffield said. “But I can assure you that when I go to the grocery store in Mount Vernon, Ohio, I get noticed. It’s so rare that they see someone who looks like me, that’s why I talk about both invisibility and hyper visibility.
Katherine Jellison, professor of history and director of the Central Region Humanities Center, is the main organizer of the conference. The inspiration for the conference topic, Jellison said, is a combination of national events and a spike in interest in Ohio history. In February 2020, a conference hosted by the university focused on the settlement of Ohio and was hosted by Associate Professor of History Brian Schoen.
“Through this conference, Brian Schoen had said, you know, there’s a lot of interest in the run-up to the Civil War in Ohio and black participation in the Civil War in Ohio,” said said Jellison.
After protests erupted following the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Jellison said it was important to show members of the university “care about black lives” and to show that “it matters”.
In January 2022, OU relaunched the Central Region Humanities Center, which was established in 2001. During the first month of the center’s revival, Jellison rejected the idea for the conference topic.
“One of the first examples I threw out there at that advisory board was, ‘Why don’t we think about black lives matter in the Ohio Valley? “, Jellison said. “Everyone loved it – everyone was so excited.”
Tee Ford-Ahmed is a member of the advisory board of the Central Region Humanities Center and welcomes the relaunch of the center and its mission.
“He hopes to serve as…a facilitator for understanding through research and education and public programs about the region, particularly the Appalachian region in which we live,” Ford-Ahmed said.
The new launch, Ford-Ahmed said, examines freedom and slavery in the 19th century. Ford-Ahmed is also the director of communications and media for the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society and said the conference and the focus of the center are directly related to the work being done to preserve the church.
Mount Zion Baptist Church “is a black church built by free-born and enslaved Africans in the late 1800s,” Ford-Ahmed said. “And that building is the one we’re trying to preserve right now.”
The Central Region Humanities Center, while providing educational opportunities, was also able to offer internships to students in March 2022, Ford-Ahmed said. The center will again offer internships next semester with financial assistance.
“So I think for a new center, starting with a big conference (and) starting internship, we’re not doing badly,” Ford-Ahmed said.
The Ohio Valley Black Lives Matter Conference is an opportunity for people to dig deeper into what they already know, break down traditional and stereotypical ways of thinking, and hear important stories. Sheffield wants to impact people through storytelling and bring awareness to the diversity that exists in rural Ohio.
“You can’t know your community if you don’t know others,” Sheffield said. “If all you do is study traditional things, how can you say you understand your community, or even yourself?”