GALLIPOLIS — As monuments to the Confederacy fall and their fate debated, a local museum dedicated to preserving Black History is receiving support from its community.
The John Gee Black Historical Center, located at 48 Pine Street, is reopening on Friday, July 10 and will be open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Other hours are offered by appointment. Admission is free.
The center has recently established a website and Facebook page as well, boasting a newly designed logo from Dr. Allen Cook from the University of Rio Grande and exterior sign from Chuck Conley from Auto Trim Center.
Faithful volunteers and new members to the center’s board, recently recognized members of the community for their support in providing everything from seating, filing cabinets and tables, to custom bookcases and signage. Gathered were Tom Wiseman and Larry Miller from Ohio Valley Bank (OVB); from Gallipolis City Commission, City Manager Ted Lozier and Commissioners Tony Gallagher and Mike Fulks; Gallia Sheriff Matt Champlin; Kaitlyn Halley from the Gallia County Convention and Visitors Center (GCCVB); and resident Jim Blevins.
The mission statement of the center is, “A cultural and educational center to insure the preservation of tradition, culture, crafts, music and art of the African Americans in Southeastern Ohio and to educate our diverse people about African-American traditions and about the past and present contributions of African-Americans to this country.”
The center is known for its educational presentations to local elementary school students, students at the University of Rio Grande, church groups, civic organizations and more, as well as its historic walking tour.
The center’s home is itself “history” and located in the former John Gee African Methodist Episcopal Chapel – the chapel, later named for Gee following his death, was dedicated in 1868.
Gee was a skilled carpenter who built houses in Gallipolis and donated the land at 48 Pine Street for the first church edifice. According to the Gee Center, during these times, Black Americans were usually buried in church cemeteries. But John Gee donated four acres of land at the end of Pine Street as a burial ground for the local Black citizens.
Reportedly, church members were also part the Underground Railroad and assisted fugitive slaves on their road to freedom. Inside the center is the uniform of a Gallia Tuskegee Airman, shackles once used to hold humans captive among books and other artifacts dedicated to telling the tale of Gallia’s African American history.
Robin Payne, chairperson of the center’s committee, said the facility receives no grants or money from local government, and is solely dependent on donations from the community and memberships. Memberships are $20 for individuals; $35 for families (household); $50 for churches/non-profit organizations; $100 corporations/businesses. The center is a registered 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, charitable organization.
Payne, who joined the committee last fall and was elected as the center’s chair in May, said the organization had been struggling financially though the membership drive which began in January has helped. In addition, community members, government entities, individuals and businesses are stepping up to assist in preserving what many in the area aren’t aware they have, yet.
With an emphasis on Black history and protests highlighting racial injustices sweeping across the nation, this seems like an opportunity for education that may not come again, which Payne recognizes.
“I think it (the center) is very relevant to what’s going on today, simply because we’re an education facility,” Payne said. “We want to educate the community on what Black people have come through, where we’ve come from, how we got where we are today. When you see what our history has been, then you have a better understanding of the struggles we’ve been through and where we are today. We have a really, rich history here, like I said we are very fortunate…we are blessed to be in Southeast Ohio… God has placed people on the right path at the right time.”
Some of those people include, personnel at OVB. The bank is providing seating and other materials at the center.
Wiseman, chairman and CEO of OVB, commented, “Every contribution is vital when it comes to preserving our community’s unique history. Some give money. Some give needed items. Some give their time. All knowing the importance of this place. Thanks to the many generous organizations and businesses in our community that chose community first and helped make this happen.”
“I would like to thank the devoted volunteers of The John Gee Black Historical Center for the countless hours they have invested,” Miller, president and chief operating officer, OVB, said. “Their work has made this place a point of pride in our community. It is because of their diligence that the community came together in such a tremendous effort to ensure that the center is able tell its stories for decades to come.”
Like OVB, the GCCVB is a corporate sponsor. The Bureau recently donated a conference table as well and attempts to actively promote the center as part of its local tourism campaign.
“The John Gee Black Historical Center plays such an important role in the history and heritage of Gallia County,” Halley said. “The Center is a great asset to Gallia County tourism. ”
The sheriff’s office has also donated office furnishings and a first aid kit.
“I’m very thankful for the work the board and Robin (Payne) have done here to restore history and bring history to the forefront, and am thankful I’ve been in a position where I can support them and help them grow their program,” Sheriff Champlin said.
“The City has been a long time supporter of the John Gee Center, and we’re excited for the work they have done and their reopening coming up,” Lozier said on behalf of himself and the Gallipolis City Commission. “The center is vital to help continue the rich history and heritage of Gallipolis and the region. We hope they continue to have much success and gain great support as they continue their efforts to provide important history and education.”
Blevins commented he was happy to put his woodworking skills to the test to take church pews from the 1960’s and turn them into bookshelves and a placard holder, denoting, and preserving the memory of the members who dedicated those pews years ago.
From the smallest gift to the largest, Payne says they are all appreciated. She explained the center continues to “chop away” at the many small things that are needed. Currently, the center is in need of some minor plumbing and electrical work, as well as special blinds to block UV rays from damaging any of the artifacts in the building.
For more information, find the John Gee Black Historical Center on Facebook or online at www.JohnGeeBlackHistory.com. Phone 740-578-9692 for more information.
© 2020 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.