History Play May Come to Wheeling

Organizers of the J.R. Clifford Project believe there’s no better time than 2013 – the 150th anniversary year of West Virginia statehood – to bring a living history drama about slavery and civil rights in the Mountain State’s early years to Wheeling, where it all began.

The play, titled “A New Home for Liberty: Human Rights, Slavery and the Creation of West Virginia,” traces the statehood movement through the lens of how its founders dealt with the troubling issue of slavery, according to its author, Tom Rodd. It has played to crowds of several hundred in Morgantown, Charleston and Shepherdstown since 2011.

An informal meeting is planned for 5-6:30 p.m. Friday at West Virginia Independence Hall to gauge the community’s interest in holding such a production in the Friendly City sometime this year. A group of local sponsors and partners is needed, Rodd said, to build participation, find a suitable venue and help raise funds for production costs.

“We’ve always had it in the back of our mind that we could do this in Wheeling in 2013” in honor of the statehood sesquicentennial, he said.

Leaders of the J.R. Clifford Project include Rodd, Kitty Dooley and former state Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher. The project’s namesake, John Robert Clifford, was a Civil War veteran and one-time Wheeling resident who in 1887 became West Virginia’s first black attorney and a decade later successfully argued a landmark civil rights case before the state Supreme Court that prevented Tucker County from cutting the academic year from nine months to five for African-American students.

The roughly hour-long play, which Rodd said is tailored in each case to the community where it’s being performed, begins with Clifford and Granville Hall – an early editor of the Wheeling Intelligencer whose father was indicted for subscribing to anti-slavery newspapers – as old men reminiscing about the past. It then moves through several flashback-type scenes recalling the statehood movement and culminating with President Abraham Lincoln signing the proclamation that made West Virginia the 35th state.

The statehood convention was divided over slavery, Rodd said, and West Virginia’s initial constitution was silent on the issue – it was only after the federal government made clear the state would not be admitted to the Union without provisions for emancipation that a clause gradually freeing slaves was added. After the Civil War was over, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution superseded that by completely abolishing slavery throughout the country.

“We talk about a tough subject – but we talk about it in a positive way,” Rodd said.

The play, Rodd said, helps bring the issue of slavery to life in ways that people often don’t think about. For example, it explores the bullying children such as Hall faced, simply for having parents identified as part of the abolition movement.

“It makes it possible to understand how slavery affected people,” he said of the play.

For more information, call Rodd at 304-541-4494, Starcher at 304-541-3304 or Dooley at 304-346-1200.