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A national exhibit helps a Stark County town deal with a racial past
Louisville, Ohio, is one of just 50 towns in the country hosting the Smithsonian's "Changing America" exhibit

Web Editor
M.L. Schultze
The Smithsonian exhibit is set up in Louisville's Constitution Hall until Friday.
Courtesy of M.L. SCHULTZE
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CORRECTION: Dave Yeagley's last name was misspelled in the original version of this story.

At the end of this week, a Smithsonian exhibition celebrating two landmark bookends of the civil rights movement heads out of Louisville, Ohio. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on what brought the exhibit to a town that acknowledges it’s had its own history of racial problems.


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The exhibit is called “Changing America.” Via curving display panels and looped video, it follows the path of two events: 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 here 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. 

Snyder’s talk focused on Lincoln and the world that surrounded the issue of slavery in the mid-1800s. 

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

But why Louisville?
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 Yeagley of the Louisville-Nimishillen Historical Society -- says that’s part of the not-so-proud side of the history of the city -- Louisville, stayed not only overwhelmingly white – but deliberately so.

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

Yeagley 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. 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. 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.’”

A discussion needed beyond Louisville
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 is head of the Urban League in Stark County, and 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. 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 credit 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 tomorrow night at 6 p.m. at the Louisville Constitution Center.

(Click image for larger view.)

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