by Christina Fisanick
The best part of working in the archives is the surprising discoveries that reveal new insights into stories that most people think they already know. This has been especially true of my exploration of the Mount de Chantal Academy archives housed by the diocese in Wheeling. Scrapbooks, newsletters, yearbooks, artifacts, and so much more tell complex, first-hand stories of the past that demonstrate the resilience of a school whose history spans 160 years.
My first tour through the archives uncovered many hidden treasures that both surprised and delighted me, and others that made me want to know more, like the clippings I found in a 1970 student scrapbook. Page after page of glued-down newspaper articles tell stories readers would expect to find: successful bake sales, honor roll lists, student performances well done, and so on, but somewhere in the middle of the thick album I was astonished to find a set of reports that revealed a story few would expect.
It seems that in December 1970 three Mount De Chantal students organized a Black Panther Party rally at Wheeling High School.
Popular culture tells a complicated story of the Black Panther Party with the common image of the political organization founded in 1966 in Oakland, California being a Black man with a gun strapped to his back striding city streets intimidating law enforcement. But being a student of history, I know that they also started free breakfast programs for school children, community health clinics, and other social initiatives. At the same time, the BPP were responsible for the slayings of police officers in response to law enforcement murders of unarmed Black men; incidents that certainly resonate in 2021.
Obviously, I stopped and read every word.
The three clippings from the Wheeling Intelligencer yielded some basic information about the rally: the Mount de Chantal students organized the event, which included inviting Black community leaders and forty Wheeling High School students to assemble in the auditorium on December 5, 1970. The Mount students were expelled. Thirty of the WHS students left the building and ten of them returned to their classes. The WHS principal said he knew nothing about the rally.
I had to know more!
As is typical of my history jaunts, this story became a rabbit hole into which I continued to gleefully fall. The more questions I asked (Who were these students? Why would they hold the rally at Wheeling High School and not the Mount or some other location? Wasn’t expelling the students a bit harsh?), the more questions arose (Did the assistant principal give the students consent and not tell the principal? Was it really meant to be a memorial service for slain BPP leaders? Was there a chapter of the BPP here in Wheeling in 1970? Why were the students persuaded by their cause?).
As I continued to pull the threads of this story, I realized that writing one article would not be enough to do it justice. I knew that I had to talk to the students who organized the rally. I wanted to know what they were thinking at the time, how their families responded, and if they continued to be activists after they left the Mount. I had to find out what the literature they were handing out at the rally said. I needed to learn more about the local Black leaders who were involved in the rally and were prepared to speak.
By now I am sure that anyone reading this post has many of the same questions and other questions as well, but you will have to stay tuned until next time when we go beyond the sensational headlines in pursuit of a more complete story of that time when three young women from MdeC marched a group of students down the halls of Wheeling High School in pursuit of racial justice.
Author’s note: Do you remember this incident? Were you part of this class? Tell me more! Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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