15th Street in East Wheeling. Photo by Lucas Manfield

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There’s a lot at stake in this year’s elections. But it shouldn’t be about campaign ad wars and horse-race coverage.  

So Mountain State Spotlight reporters fanned out to four corners of the state, and asked you what is on your mind at this crucial moment in our history. 

This story is part of what we heard from you. Click here to read more.

WHEELING, W.Va. — Meandering through the historically Black neighborhoods in North and East Wheeling on the way to her childhood home, Tishawana Terry points out ghosts from decades past.

There’s the Pythian Building, which once housed an African American restaurant and theater. There’s Clay School, where her grandmother once worked as a secretary, which closed in the early 1990s amid declining enrollment. 

And with its primary school gone, so too went East Wheeling’s polling place. It was moved downtown to county headquarters, which for years has also housed the Wheeling Police Department. Deputies from the Ohio County Sheriff’s Office, which is next door, staff a metal detector in the foyer. Cruisers line the street outside. 

Tishawana Terry walks down her childhood street in East Wheeling. Photo by Lucas Manfield

Terry believes it amounts to voter intimidation. Joined by other local advocates, the NAACP and a city councilwoman, she’s called for city officials to move the polling place. So far, they have not. 

Owens Brown, president of the West Virginia NAACP, said having the polling place in the same building as the police station could be intimidating, particularly for younger Black voters who have had negative experiences with cops. 

“I saw it as having a chilling effect on people who may want to go vote,” he said.

The location of the polling place is just one of many things that Wheeling advocates like Terry want changed to address racial injustices that have persisted in the city for generations. Recent incidents of racism — fueled, some argue, by racist rhetoric from the nation’s political leaders — have added urgency to the drive to raise up the voices of the Black community, and get them to the voting booth to cast a ballot in this year’s election. 

Wheeling’s twentieth man

Wheeling, like the rest of the United States, has a long history of racism. In 1936, the city’s sole African American lawyer, Harry H. Jones, took to the local radio station to give a speech condemning Jim Crow. Despite one in twenty of Wheeling’s residents being African American, Jones pointed out, the county had hired none of them. 

“Justice and candor require attention to the handicaps suffered by Wheeling’s twentieth man,” he said. 

Today, the demographics are similar. Six percent of Wheeling is Black, compared to just under 4 percent statewide. 

Terry said she wants to see more African Americans elected to office and working in government. But, she said, “I feel like we’re going backwards.”

The abandoned Clay School building. Photo by Lucas Manfield

And although Jim Crow is gone, racism — reinforced by exclusionary housing policies that have handicapped Black neighborhoods like East Wheeling for generations — remains. 

In 2018, a local restaurant owner who ran the food kiosks at Wesbanco Arena downtown posted a racist rant on Facebook. He later apologized before the city council for using “four racial slurs.”

Early this summer, stickers from known hate groups — decried by Wheeling’s mayor as “racist propaganda” — began appearing on buildings and utility poles around the city. 

Rod Lee, the director of a community gym in East Wheeling, said things have gotten worse in recent years. “I can remember things that I’ve experienced as a kid. I’ve seen change — people have progressed to learn to live together and get along,” he said.

“But it has gone all the way back to where people are openly expressing their racism, their disgust,” he went on. 

He’s 50 years old, and called this the most important election of his lifetime. 

Rod Lee. Photo by Lucas Manfield.

Still, Lee said, he’s optimistic. He said the relationship between Wheeling’s Black community and the city has been getting better. “It’s been contentious for a lot of years, but it’s been improving,” he said.

His gym, the Nelson Jordan Center, is a 70-year-old hub for the Black community. Lately, it’s fallen into disrepair. But Lee credits community activists like Terry for convincing the city to fund improvements, like a new bathroom and heating system. 

On a recent Wednesday night, Lee and around a dozen other Black men gathered in an upstairs room above the gym to discuss strategies to get out the vote. They’ve been meeting since early this summer, when Wheeling resident Joe Sparksman convened the group in response to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.  

The group calls themselves Men of Change. “For things to change, we have to make them change,” Sparksman said. 

In September, the group gave out more than 300 backpacks filled with school supplies to local students — and voting registration forms to their parents.

Sharon Stradwick, a 60-year-old resident of East Wheeling, said she thought there was going to be a big voter turnout this year. She faulted Republican Gov. Jim Justice for leaving nearly a billion dollars of federal CARES Act money, meant to help the state through the pandemic, unspent. 

“A lot of people are saying they’re strictly voting blue. They’re just tired,” she said. 

She had only praise for her local councilwoman, Rosemary Ketchum, who Stradwick said she trusted to continue the fight for equality. Ketchum, who is white, was voted in earlier this year to represent the city’s Third Ward, which includes East Wheeling. She is also West Virginia’s first openly transgender elected official. 

A public health crisis

The tenor of the conversation about race in Wheeling is already changing. In October, city council voted unanimously to make Wheeling the first city in West Virginia to declare racism a public health crisis.

Members of Men of Change gathered in the council chambers in solidarity, and said they hoped other cities in West Virginia would follow suit.

The city council resolution orders the city manager to review city policies and to eliminate “any implicit and explicit racial bias” and to “work towards building a more diverse and inclusive workforce.”

“That’s fine,” Terry said. “I’m glad they’re doing it.” 

But she wants actions more than words. She wants more people of color on city payrolls. And she wants the polling place moved.

Security in the foyer of the City-County building, East Wheeling’s polling place. Photo by Lucas Manfield

The demand has gained momentum this year, as the 2020 election looms. In January, Michael Hamilton, a church organist and former director of a nearby food pantry, suggested moving the voting booths across the street to the Ohio County Public Library.

The library’s board of trustees was “amenable,” the director told him in an email, but the county commission, which controls voting procedures in Ohio County, “preferred to have the City-County Building remain the polling place for the 3rd Ward.”

The fight has left Terry pessimistic, the result of years of failed battles. 

“It might just be because of my age,” she said. “I’ve raised hell about a lot of things… I just feel right is right and wrong is wrong.”

She delivered that message to Ketchum earlier this year, who then spoke to the county’s elections coordinator.

But so far, Ketchum said, she’s had little luck.

Lucas Manfield is a Report for America corps member covering business and economic development. He has covered housing, health care and government accountability for the Dallas Observer and interned at...