Play puts West Virginia’s dramatic birth in spotlight

SHEPHERDSTOWN – As a Pittsburgh native who settled near Romney in 1970 when he married a West Virginian, Thomas Rodd says too many people – including state residents – don’t appreciate just what a one-of-a-kind start the Mountain State had.

With the sesquicentennial of West Virginia’s birth coming in June, Rodd is out to change that.

This weekend, Rodd’s new play – “A New Home for Liberty: Human Rights, Slavery and the Creation of West Virginia” – comes to Shepherdstown, with Supreme Court Justic Larry Starcher, Judge David Sanders and local politicians including John Doyle, John Unger, Dale Manuel, Bill Senseney and Gail Boober and former Minority Leader Charles S. Trump portraying delegates at the 1861 Wheeling Constitutional Convention.

J.R. Clifford, the Martinsburg man who made history as West Virginia’s first African-American lawyer, is one of the characters in “A New Home for Liberty: Human Rights, Slavery and the Creation of West Virginia,” a new play on West Virginia’s birth, which comes to Shepherdstown this weekend. “The civil rights history of West Virginia is a largely untapped area of historic/heritage tourism,” explains Thomas Rodd, the playwright.

“Too few West Virginians and fewer visitors to our state have an appreciation of the Mountain State’s rich and unique history,” explains Rodd, formerly the senior law clerk for the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Free performances are set for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Frank Arts Center on the campus of Shepherd University

In the play, West Virginia’s birth is told through the eyes of two little-known but important history makers, Granville Hall and J.R. Clifford, West Virginia natives both of whom died in 1933.

Rodd said he learned of Hall – a Harrison County resident who served as West Virginia’s second Secretary of State – when he was enrolled at West Virginia University School of Law, where he studied state constitutional history.

Free showings of “A New Home for Liberty” happen Saturday and Sunday in Shepherdstown.

“Hall recorded with shorthand the Wheeling statehood conventions in 1861 through ‘63,” Rodd said.

Years later, Rodd’s wife came across the 1898 Blackwater Canyon case, considered a landmark education decision, and one argued by longtime Martinsburg resident Clifford, a Civil War veteran who became West Virginia’s first African-American attorney. That incident provided the storyline for another well-received Rodd drama.

Rodd hit upon the idea of creating a family-friendly drama that would bring to life the state’s historic beginnings. “A New Home for Liberty” won positive reviews when it was staged last year in Morgantown and Charleston.

In an interview, Rodd said he’s excited about seeing the play staged in the Eastern Panhandle and eager to be part of the events in Shepherdstown.

“The occasion of the play is the 150 th anniversary of the creation of West Virginia,” Rodd said. “The play is about celebrating that creation and looking at it through the lens of how the statemakers grappled with the issue of slavery, which was a particularly contentious issue that almost blocked the admission of West Virginia into the Union.”

At the time of the South’s secession, Rodd explained, there were only 10,000 slaves in the territory that would become West Virginia while there were over 500,000 in what would become the new state of Virginia. This central difference set abolition-minded citizens against Virginia’s decision to leave the Union and pushed them toward the creation of a new state.

The play brings Hall and Clifford together for a look back, Rodd said.

“They meet in a railroad station in 1913, 50 years after the state was created,” he said. “They talk about what it was like before the Civil War in Virginia for whites and blacks. Then we have scenes that take place during the Civil War – they were both in the war. We also do the Wheeling Convention where the state was created between 1861 and 1863. We end up with Abraham Lincoln signing the West Virginia statehood proclamation.

“All of our dialogue is taken from the words actually spoken at the Constitutional Convention. Some of the stories we had to imagine, but all of the basic facts are taken from actual history. It’s a trip through a very exciting period of history.”

Rodd says the play also seeks to teach basic lessons about democracy and efforts to thwart it. One easily observable effect of Virginia’s defense of the institution of slavery – and subsequent measures to disenfranchise black voters – was the level of democratic participation in the Eastern Panhandle compared with that in neighboring counties in Virginia.

“If you look at the numbers voting in West Virginia compared to neighboring counties in Virginia,” said Rodd, “it is just a no-brainer. West Virginians were voting in basically twice the percentages of Virginians. African Americans and low-income whites were really frozen out of the ballot box for 100 years in Virginia, but West Virginia didn’t have that problem.

“People still talk about attempts at voter suppression even in this day, and that is not anything that is new.”

Rodd says the most important message of the play is the tremendous sacrifices made by the founders of West Virginia in the name of freedom.

“It was a lot like the American Revolution,” Rodd said. “They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, and a lot of them died fighting to remain a part of the United States.

“We think it is something worth celebrating.”

Before Sunday afternoon’s show, history experts John Stealey, Shepherd University professor emeritus; John Alexander Williams, an acclaimed author and professor of history at Appalachian State University; and Hari Jones, curator of D.C.’s African-American Civil War Museum. The free panel discussion begins at 2 p.m.

Joe Yates is directing the performances. Doyle, a longtime member of the West Virginia House of Delegates from Jefferson County, will portray the chairman of the Wheeling Convention, John Hall. Others in the cast of “A New Home for Liberty” include retired educator Taylor J. Perry, Danny Staggers, Helen Harris, Jim Surkamp, Dave Hammer, Effie Kallas, Mike Lorensen, Maria Lorensen, Bryan Crockett, Kim Crockett, D. Frank Hill III, Homer Speaker, Emily Wanger Romine, Jack Shaw, Viola Johnson, Trevor Rowland, Tony Russo and Samantha Yates.

Each performance lasts 75 minutes and is followed by a short reception, open to the public. Though there is no admission charge, seating is limited. Organizers urge those interested to reserve seats by going online to jrcifford.org or by e-mailing admin@jrclifford.org or by calling 304-345-7663.

Hosts for the programs include local leaders George Rutherford, Leonard Harris, William Norris, Charlotte Norris, Jim Eros and Claire Eros.

Singers from local church choirs will portray the Hutchinson Family, a 19th-century abolitionist singing group. They will present African-American spirituals of the Civil War era.

Other historic characters in the program include President Lincoln and Charles Town-born Martin Delany, the highly decorated Civil War soldier and African-American icon.

The Shepherdstown performances are part of the J.R. Clifford Project’s West Virginia Sesquicentennial Celebration initiative. Starcher is the J. R. Clifford Project’s honorary chairman.

“Thousands of brave Mountaineers, black and white, slave and free, risked their lives and fortunes to create the state of West Virginia,” Rodd said. “‘A New Home for Liberty’ tells how they added West Virginia’s star to ‘Old Glory’ -– as the Civil War raged around them. People of all ages will learn amazing things about West Virginia that they never knew before.”

The weekend’s productions are made possible with financial help from Shepherdstown 250, AT&T Corporation, the Appalachian Community Fund, the Mountain State Bar, the West Virginia Civil War and Statehood Sesquicentennial Commission, the Pyles & Turner Foundation and other local groups, businesses and individuals .

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