When Ann Thomas gazes up at the old Lincoln School in Wheeling, she sees something much different than most who pass by its solid, imposing walls.
The school - which today houses the Northern Regional Juvenile Correction Center - served as Wheeling's high school for black students prior to 1954, when the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
For Thomas, who once attended classes there, the Chapline Street building is a reminder both of how far society has come and how far it still has to go. It's a concept unfathomable to Wheeling's younger generations, she said.
"They have no clue. They only know Lincoln School as the place where our incarcerated teens are," Thomas told Wheeling Lions Club members, speaking about her memories of growing up in Wheeling during the days of "Jim Crow" - the term used to describe the collective system of laws designed to keep whites and blacks in separate spheres between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement.
Thomas vividly recalls the day in 1954 when her principal came into her classroom at Lincoln School and told her and her classmates that from that point forward, they could go to school in their own neighborhood if they wished, because the Supreme Court said so.
"Of course I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen," she said.
The transition was much smoother in Wheeling than in many areas, and two years later, Thomas was among the first black students to graduate from Wheeling High School, doing so in the top 25 percent of her class. She became a nurse, and went on to marry Wheeling's first - and only - black City Council member, the late Clyde Thomas.
"I'm the living example of what was then and what is now," she said
Many people view the term "Jim Crow" as a relic of the Deep South - but it was very much a part of Wheeling's history, and of Thomas' childhood.
Many restaurants and theaters, including the Capitol, were off limits to black, and only on Monday nights could she and her friends go ice skating at Market Plaza. Out of necessity, Thomas said, black families formed their own community, their own social life.
Though much has changed, a more subtle, underlying form of racism still exists in our society, according to Thomas.
"What's in somebody's heart, I can't change that. ... We still have work to do as it relates to our relationships with one another," she said. "People ask me what I want to be called. I tell them, 'Ann.' I am an American. The color of my skin happens to be brown - black."
She remembers how she cried on Nov. 4, 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
"Never in my imagination did I think a person of color would ever be president," Thomas said. "So the next thing, ladies, is a woman."