WHEELING - It was not lost on those who gathered Friday evening in the basement of West Virginia Independence Hall to gauge interest in a Wheeling production of a play about slavery, civil rights and West Virginia statehood that much of the real-life drama its script recalls unfolded just a few floors above their heads.
Organizers of the J.R. Clifford Project have presented the play, "A New Home for Liberty: Human Rights, Slavery and the Creation of West Virginia," in Morgantown, Charleston and Shepherdstown over the past two years. But in 2013, the 150th anniversary year of the Mountain State's split from Virginia, there was no question where its next stop should be, they said.
"We need to do this in Wheeling," Larry Starcher, former state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice and one of the group's co-directors, said.
DISCUSSING PLAY — The Rev. Darrell Cummings, left, speaks with Tom Rodd, co-director of the J.R. Clifford Project, Friday during a meeting at West Virginia Independence Hall about the possible production of a West Virginia statehood play in Wheeling sometime this year. -- Ian Hicks
Written by Charleston lawyer Tom Rodd, the living history drama examines West Virginia's origins through the lens of slavery and civil rights. Topics include the plight of escaped slaves as they sought safety in the North, the harassment children faced whose parents were identified with the abolition movement, and the divisions the slavery issue wrought among delegates to West Virginia's statehood convention - which originally sent Congress a constitution silent on the issue of slavery, but added a gradual emancipation clause at the federal government's insistence.
Requirements in order for the play to happen include finding a suitable venue, a local director, and funding, because the J.R. Clifford Project refuses to charge admission for the play in order to keep it open to anyone who wants to attend. Production costs are estimated at $26,700, but Rodd said that figure can be reduced through in-kind donations, such as free or discounted use of a venue.
"What we've got to do is get a group of people together to say yes, we want to do this and we're going to make it happen," Rodd said.
Among those attending Friday's meeting was John Mattox, curator of the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio, whose great-grandmother was a slave in North Carolina. He said the story is one that needs to be told.
"We all know what happened up on the third floor," he said, referring to the now-restored courtroom inside West Virginia Independence Hall where the statehood conventions took place. "We've heard it so many times, and we think we know it all ... and we don't know it all," said Mattox.
West Virginia University law professor Atiba Ellis told those gathered that for him, getting involved with the play was an opportunity to stand in the shoes of history's giants and share the vision of building community in the present by learning from the past.
"To stand in those shoes was wonderful. ... This project is your opportunity to stand in those shoes, speak those words and project that vision. ... Now more than ever, we need to share that vision," Ellis said.
Anyone interested in getting involved should call Judy Rodd at 304-345-7663. Mattox also offered to help organize local support, noting those interested can call him as well, at 740-986-2080.
The J.R. Clifford Project's namesake, John Robert Clifford, was born to free black parents in modern-day Grant County, W.Va., in 1848. He fought in the Civil War, later founded his own newspaper and in 1887 became West Virginia's first African-American attorney. About a decade later he successfully argued a landmark civil rights case before the state Supreme Court of Appeals that reversed the Tucker County Board of Education's decision to shorten the school year for black students from nine months to five.