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Smithsonian Exhibit Helps One Ohio Town Discuss Its Racial Divide

At the end of this week, a Smithsonian exhibition celebrating two landmark bookends of the civil rights movement heads out of Louisville, Ohio, a small town in Stark County that has had a history of racial problems

The exhibit, “Changing America,” follows the path of two events via curving display panels and looped video: the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the March on Washington 100 years later. The exhibit will be in just 50 cities in the U.S. over five years. It came to Ohio from Detroit, and heads onto spots including Memphis, New Orleans and Brooklyn.

The Louisville Public library did the grant work with the National Endowment for the Humanities to draw the exhibit to town, and retired library Director Mike Snyder gave one of about a half-dozen homegrown presentations launched with the exhibit.

“Lincoln was not an abolitionist,” Snyder explained. “He was against slavery, but dog-gone, the Constitution protected it. And Lincoln was a lawyer.”

Louisville was not even 30 years old when President Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, and over the next 150 years, it grew to a city of about 9,000—more than 98 percent of whom today are white. Dave Yeagler of the Louisville-Nimishillen Historical Society says that’s part of the not-so-proud side of the history of the city—Louisville stayed overwhelmingly white, and deliberately so.

“You learn these things from your parents and your grandparents who knew Louisville in the 50s and before that as a sundown town,” said Yeagler. “Don’t be caught here after the sun goes down if you weren’t a white person.”

Yeagler says that’s why it was so important that Louisville be the town hosting the civil rights exhibit—important to the town’s soul and to those familiar with its history.

Another historical society member, Ron Derry, moved here 52 years ago, when he was 15.

“What I saw here was different than I experienced in Alliance because I came from a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood,” said Derry. “When I got here, it was totally different. And the truth of the matter was, at that time, that reputation did exist. It does not exist anymore.”

What changed?

“Young people. Young people change everything.”

Rachel Sweeney one of those young people, a 20-something who’s helping the curate the exhibit.

“I think it’s getting better with each generation,” Sweeney said. “I hope that we’re able to show with the city partnering with us as well that, ‘Hey, we don’t always deserve the bad rep that we’re getting.’”

About eight miles west, across Route 153 is Canton, the county seat whose population soared to more than 115,000 people before sinking to about 72,000, one third of whom are people of color.

Vince Watts, head of the Urban League in Stark County, brought some of the kids in his program over to Louisville to see the exhibit.

“For the most part, they all could identify with the racial identity we give to Louisville, but none of them could identify with the movement that worked to eliminate that racial divide,” Watts said. “And that’s kind of the paradox to me.”

Were any of them willing to give Louisville “at-a-boys” for trying?

“I have to say, no,” Watts says, his voice dropping. Watts, however, did give Louisville props for trying. And he says the town is far from the only one that needs to be talking about race. “There’s still a larger discussion on the issue of race that we need to have in Stark County. One of those real, raw and relevant discussions that brings all those things to the table. And until we do that racial undertone is going to lie there right beneath the surface waiting for that next incident, the next accident, the next statement.”

The final discussion that accompanies the exhibit will be Tuesday night at 6 p.m. at the Louisville Constitution Center.

M.L. Schultze is a reporter and web editor with Ohio Public Radio member station WKSU.