by Christina Fisanick
It made radio, television, and print news for days: three Mount de Chantal students staged a Black Panther rally at Wheeling High School!
According to the Wheeling Intelligencer, on Friday, December 4, 1970, more than thirty Wheeling High School students were led by the Mount de Chantal women in what the school principal, Harold K. Blayney, called “an unauthorized Black Panther demonstration.”
Blayney told the reporter that the nearly forty WHS students had gathered to hold a “memorial service for two Black Panthers shot by police last year in Chicago.”
Blayney was blindsided by this spontaneous assembly, he said, and called Wheeling Police Chief Arthur McKenzie about dispersing the crowd. In the end, he decided against involving the police. Instead, he ordered the WHS students to return to class. Thirty of them walked out of school on that cold December afternoon and the other ten went back to their classes.
According to Blayney, the students never asked to hold an assembly, and he was surprised to find that three or four local Black leaders were waiting in the auditorium “prepared to give a lecture.” Meanwhile, the three Mount students had handed out literature that recounted the shocking deaths of the two Black Panther leaders.
Apparently, an assistant principal had given a small group of WHS students permission to attend a memorial service, which she thought was to be held off site in a local church.
Five days later, the Intelligencer reported that Blayney had decided to “forget” the incident and allow the WHS student to return to school without punishment.
The situation for the Mount students was a bit different. They issued the following apology to Blayney:
“We are writing this letter to apologize for interrupting your school day last Friday with our plans for a memorial service . . We realize now that we should have consulted you about planning for this. We are sorry for all the trouble we caused.”
Michael O’Hear, director of Mount de Chantal, confirmed that the three students would be allowed to return to classes after Christmas break.
And that’s the story, right?
Not even close.
“It was all about some boys”
According to Donna, one of the Mount students who allegedly organized the rally, almost nothing reported on the news reflects the truth of that Friday afternoon. “It is not as exciting as it sounds,” she said with a chuckle.
While she acknowledges that her memory might be a bit rusty given that it has been fifty years since the incident occurred, she called one of the other Mount girls who was with her that day, Celestine. She confirmed her recollections. (Sadly, the third Mount girl, Patricia (or Tish), has passed away.)
Donna says that the papers got so much of it wrong that it is hard to reconcile their reporting with her lived experience. In short, she says, “It was all about some boys.”
Apparently, Donna and Tish had met two “really handsome basketball players from Wheeling High School,” and they decided to be bold on Friday afternoon and show up during their lunch hour to impress them. They had no idea that what they were about to do would get the attention of news outlets as far away as Pittsburgh.
On that Friday, Donna and Tish’s classmates were heading to Oglebay to spend the day celebrating their class’ patron saint, which might have been Saint Barbara, but Donna admits to forgetting that detail. Donna and Tish decided that they didn’t want to go to the park that afternoon, and they asked permission from the head of school to not attend. That permission was granted.
Tish had just returned from New York City, where she had spent Thanksgiving break with her family. She brought the latest Black Panther newsletter with her. She and Donna had spent quite some time reading the stories and trying to understand what was happening in the world. They had decided the night before that they would impress the WHS boys by putting together a hand-typed flyer made up of some of the stories from the newsletter.
Celestine, who really wasn’t interested in boys or the Black Panthers, went with Donna and Trish anyway because she wanted to get off school grounds. The three girls took a taxi from the Mount to WHS downtown. It was lunchtime, and they strolled in, looking for their basketball guys. Fifty years ago, it should be remembered, anyone could walk into a public school. Permission was not needed.
They found the young men in the lunch room, and knowing that one of them was head of the student council, they presented their hand-typed flyers to impress him. It worked. He made an announcement over the intercom encouraging anyone wanting to learn more about the Black Panthers and racial injustice should meet in the auditorium.
The next thing they knew, the Mount girls were swept up in a crowd of young people striding toward the school auditorium. Just as they were handing out their flyers, Principal Blayney marched in and ordered the WHS students back to class. When they refused to disassemble, he ordered them out of the building.
Donna, Tish, and Celestine walked out of the building with the basketball stars and about thirty other students to find both sides of the sidewalk lined with reporters asking questions and snapping photos. Donna said they ignored the press and just kept walking, not quite understanding why they were there or what they wanted.
The young women from the Mount ended up in Bellaire, where the boys lived, listening to records and dancing for a few hours before heading back to Wheeling. The girls stopped at Elby’s to have dinner before returning to school and were surprised to hear on the news that some Mount students had led a Black Panther rally at Wheeling High School earlier that day.
In shock, they finished their onion rings and headed back to school to face the music.
And, oh, did they ever. According to Donna, Sister Rita was waiting for them in the school’s front parlor. She didn’t yell at them. Instead, she firmly and clearly asked them what they had been thinking.
The story unfolded over the next day or two, including threats from the bishop for them to be expelled from the school. But not everyone was against these Mount women. A group of students from nearby Wheeling College spoke on their behalf, asking the school to have leniency on them because they were standing up for the rights of others.
In the end, the girls, who were boarding students, were sent home early for Christmas break, and by the time they returned in January, the entire incident had been forgotten.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
All of this begs the question: how can two very different stories exist about the same event?
I think the heart of this seeming conundrum lies in the time period in which it all took place. For one thing, the Mount had just integrated the year before. Celestine had been the only Black student enrolled in 1969, and by the next year, there were five African American female students, including Tish and Donna.
In addition, the Intelligencer had been publishing columns for months condemning the Black Panther Party for their actions, including three during the same week that the girls showed up at WHS. In fact, in his December 8 syndicated column, Victor Riesel refers to the BPP as “terrorists.” The day before Ronald Ostrow reminds readers that the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, referred to the BPP as the country’s “most dangerous and violence-prone extremist groups.”
Even though the BPP had turned their focus to social programs, like free breakfast for school children, community health clinics, and other initiatives, the image of them carrying rifles on their backs down the streets of major US cities remained the predominant view most Americans had of the organization that by 1970 was managed mostly by women.
Surely, these reports and prevailing attitudes influenced Principal Blayney’s reaction to the assembly and stoked the rabid interests of local news outlets in the events of the day.
And, it is easy to see why Blayney and others jumped to the conclusions they did. The sections of the November 28, 1970, issue of the Blank Panther newspaper Tish and Donna typed out on their flyer called for a strike on December 4: “No work! No school!” in honor of the memories of recently slain Blank Panther members, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. “Leave work and school at 10 am,” they urge. “Demonstrate your determination to stop police terror in the oppressed communities.”
In addition, college students had been standing up for injustices on campuses nationwide for years, including most relevant to Wheeling, the Morgantown Six, a group of WVU students who led anti-war protests with thousands of other students in early May of 1970. The fear that young people might revolt had to be playing out in the minds of locals at this time.
Of course, we could chalk it all up to Donna’s final thoughts: “It was a slow news day in Wheeling, apparently.”
In any case, the whole incident was eventually forgotten. The Mount women were allowed to see their basketball players and time marched on. The only real casualty in the entire affair, as Donna stated, was that the head of the Mount was fired. He was new to the job, and he lost it quickly afterwards because he gave the girls permission not to attend their class field trip, which resulted in the Mount being in unfavorable headlines.
In the end, remember that you can’t always believe what you read or what you hear. Most of the time, like in this case, the truth can be found somewhere in between.
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