Mr. Hal Gorby, West Virginia University
“Reconstructing a People’s History of Wheeling: Or How You Can Find a Job with a Humanities Degree Not Far from Home”
"Welcome to all! I want to thank Wheeling Jesuit, Dr. Raudenbush, Dr. Weimer, and all others for inviting me to speak. I was sitting the day I found out that I’d be speaking today wondering 'how would I inspire others about the glories, benefits, and continual headaches of conducting research.' Further and the most scary, 'No one will be convinced by someone whose work is in the Humanities.' Those are the people who get their degree after trying to convince mom and dad that it’s a great idea and then pursue a career in something completely unrelated.
However, I realized that I had an awful lot of good advice. Like others the 'events of my life are scattered and many.' In the same way have my research interests. James Dean and the Beatniks, Afghani Communists, and of course obscure American Presidents. You are probably wondering about my tie. For those of you not already intimately aware of the likeness (and I trust those people won’t mind me praising his memory some more), this is President Rutherford B. Hayes, our 19th President (1877-1881). Throughout my four years at WJU, I was always interested in the forgotten, the underappreciated, and those whose lives we could learn something greater about our country. It was the process of extracting those lost to the 'dustbin of history' that I became inspired to be a historian. Hayes was remembered as the man whose wife removed all alcohol from the White House (what a bummer), had what some call a 'stupid beard,' and infamously and cowardly made a bargain to gain the presidency in exchange for removing federal troops from southern states, thereby assuring the demise of civil rights for African-Americans for over a half century. While these are all valid points, I was interested in the man himself, his other reformist causes, and how Hayes was a man ahead of his times, who set the example of how a past President should behave while trying to purge corruption out of politics.
As I said, WJU really set my worldview as a historian. While past historians were immersed in the protest movements of the 1960’s, my life was shaped not only by the emphasis on social justice and the dignity of each human person, but by my own working class life. Son of a glass blower at Fostoria, I knew firsthand how life changed greatly with the threat of losing ones' job, and the dignity that also seems to escape. Going to Jesuit not only reaffirmed these ideals and beliefs, but gave me the tangible outlets to address pressing social issues, rather than being like many I knew who were pessimistic or just didn’t care. As a member of various clubs and organizations, the engagement with the community, particularly with service projects in East Wheeling (which I have to say are helping revive this once historic ethnic neighborhood), helped me understand the plight of working class people on a personal level. This life-altering awareness was further developed after going on a WJU-sponsored relief trip to New Orleans (a marvelous experience except for knocking my back out after three days).
In all of these efforts, I saw how the academic pursuits were intimately tied to service and pursuing social justice. This is probably why my lifelong love of history only intensified my goals. Like others, I had the difficult discussion of telling my parents one day senior year after a deep conversation with my fellows in Iggy that I was going to graduate school for history instead of law school. Afraid of my parents’ 'What are you thinking' comments, they who always valued solidarity, hard work, and history thought it was a fine decision.
While possessing a diverse array of interests at Jesuit, I found myself drawn back to my home state. Encouraged to go elsewhere both verbally and financially, I set upon going to West Virginia University. This made sense, and I have loved the academic experience. Remembering learning the names of the counties and county seats and touring the state with my family, I arrived at WVU thinking I would study national politics in the Gilded Age (that makes sense considering my strange attachment and obsession with Hayes at the time). However, my first semester classes at WVU would inspire my research pursuits up to this day. Classes on Appalachian, working class, and local history all drove me away from Hayes (for the time being of course) into researching the unique working class history of WV. I remember sitting in the office of my advisor Dr. Fones-Wolf, who did a book on WV’s glass workers. After hearing me discuss my possible plans of studying the state’s working class politics, he suggested 'Why not look at Wheeling?' The thought had really never occurred to me. However, as I began to talk with others, read, and do some preliminary research I discovered that Wheeling, the place where my personality and academic career started, seemed lost to the dustbin of history itself.
Throughout the course of three plus years of work, this conversion to studying Wheeling doesn’t seem so odd to me now. The positive life experience at Jesuit, the community service work, and classes at WJU subconsciously pushed me in that direction. Some of my friends say I have the admiration of this city in my blood. (I should considering the great cuisine I have eaten here over 25 years-the innumerable fish sandwiches from Coleman’s and non-meat delights from Salsa Café). I also remember the many discussions I had had with my advisor Dr. Joseph Laker, who always wanted students in senior seminar and other classes to try and examine the diverse history that existed within a short radius form Washington Avenue.
These new research possibilities merely flowed from my own experiences living in the Upper Ohio Valley. The work on Mr. Hayes taught me to always be willing to think outside of the box-pursue those avenues that either no one else has thought of or were thought to be a waste of time. In this way, I hope to retrieve a history that has been misunderstood. This has included following up on Dr. Laker’s old call to utilize local source materials. I seem to always be back in Wheeling, whether it is down at the Ohio County Library’s newspaper and local history section, at WJU, or mostly at the Diocesan archives at 20th and Main streets. Seeking at first some material on key ethnic working class parishes as I hoped to look at the role of municipal class politics has led me to reconstruct the past of a distinctively Catholic Wheeling, focusing especially on those ethnic, working class areas of the city.
This seems quite ironic. At several professional conferences, I am always asked about my biases. However, I get a good laugh out of my audience since I’m not an ethnic American, nor am I Catholic. Having spent all of this time researching on Polish, Croatian, Italian, German, Hungarian, and Irish Catholic workers, why would someone whose Protestant family has been in this area for over 300 years be interested in such a topic. Well, outside of my indelible interest in 'fringe' topics, living in a working class neighborhood made me curious of a cultural way of life that was similar but subtly different from my own. This also led me to the amazing experience of conducting oral history interviews with residents of these ethnic working class neighborhoods. Talking with them has been one of the most poignant moments of my early historical work. The personal experience and remembrance of history is vital to understanding how people truly made their own past. While they were often constrained by social forces outside of their control, the Polish women that I talked with let me in on a time where community, work, and solidarity were vital parts of their everyday lives.
Now, this is the point that all historians wonder if their audience is still paying attention (you are all doing quite well-most of the time I have to break with a “historical' youtube video to keep the student’s attention). You, the student here today may be asking yourselves, ok Mr. Gorby but what exactly can I do with a humanities degree? First, graduate school will always expand your own academic horizons. While it’s not an easy process (trust me I know-when asked if I had a good Easter break, I just shrugged my shoulders and said 'what break?'), it will teach you skills that will allow you to engage the public. Based off my own Jesuit education, I feel it is crucial, whether you are researching in the humanities or sciences that you work on research that does not distance you from the importance of teaching and service.
This works best for me in my attempts to present a 'People’s History' of Wheeling. The recovery of a people’s narrative not only gives them agency, but also shows how their own efforts could be manipulated or altered to serve the interests of others. While working on some related research for a professor covering the West Virginia Mine Wars of the early 20th Century, one quickly sees exactly what activists like Mother Jones meant when she said 'The miners lost because they had only the constitution. The other side had bayonets. In the end, bayonets always win,' and 'There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice.'
The historical process also assists my own personal, spiritual development. WJU’s mission of 'educating men and women for Life, Leadership, and Service,' appealed to me very much. History allows me to carryout that goal. This is great considering that my own personality places limits on what I can often hope to achieve sometimes. There are times when I often feel guilty for not doing as much directly to help those in need. Graduate school is a lonely endeavor sometimes, often because of the self-serving nature it can promote. I often wish I were doing some of the same great service work that many of my friends engage in-they remain a true inspiration of the importance to always balance my scholarly endeavors with seeking to promote human dignity. However, I have seen that research serves this mission. For me, there is a need to educate others about why those repressed, discriminated against, or in poverty are in that position. This assists not only those people, but also gives support to the efforts of those students here at WJU and elsewhere providing service and social activism.
These connections between service and a 'people’s history' can be seen here in Wheeling. The next few slides highlight some of how examining working people’s lives and setbacks explain how similar people in American history have struggled and the odds they were up against. I want to quickly show you three of these areas that have been illuminating to me, and that I strive to relay so that a better public dialogue can develop over how to advance a society that emphasizes human dignity over politics or economic gain.
Wheeling has been the center of protest to injustice over the years. While recently some showed how Wheeling stands against hate and fear, Wheeling’s largest efforts came in labor organizing. Wheeling was one of the highest unionized cities of its size in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was led by the grass roots efforts of the local socialist party, Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, and the Catholic Diocese (an odd combination I know). Following a devastating Banker’s Panic in 1907, much of the city’s workers were perpetually out of work from late 1907- 1910. At one point, some were out of work for over a year and a half. With children running the streets barefoot and several hundred a night sleeping on the city building steps in protest, many linked the workers’ plight to that of Christ: 'The working man of today who tries to preach an uplift doctrine to fellow workers is . . . set upon by the hired thugs of Privilege, enjoined by Judge Dayton and eventually surrounded by troops and arrested. So was Christ--all except the injunction, and the Federal Judge is of a newer birth.' During a national Steel strike in 1909-1910, Wheelingites protested low wages, poor working conditions, and limited union representation. Men like Valentine Reuther strove to bring greater unity by organizing workers in industrial unions. Workers were successful at preventing the construction of a library by steel baron Andrew Carnegie. In the early years of WWI, these working men and women took hold of the progressive fervor sweeping the nation. During an organizing drive in 1915, local union representatives pushed for mass industrial unionization, especially a strike at the Wheeling Can Factory in South Wheeling. For six weeks, they spoke fiercely of the can workers' gendered discrimination on the shop floor, the unsafe working conditions, and the 'locked' exit doors that eerily reminded many of the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in NYC in 1911. Finally, utilizing the rhetoric of 'industrial democracy,' they asked all to 'pause long enough in our demand for peace in Europe to demand industrial peace in the Eighth Ward.'
At the same time, working people faced stiff resistance. The municipal government did not help the situation. Even though 'progressive,' we should remember that progressivism could have negative undertones, promoting a restriction of the ballot based on alien laws, 'reform charters,' property requirements, and literacy tests that limited the democratic rights of African-Americans and immigrants. Workers collectively asked of their local politicians 'What’s the matter with business in Wheeling?' With 11,300 men unemployed in all of the district’s local industries, notions of the city’s decline (an almost revolving debate in recent years) angered workers one hundred years ago. Working people had heir own 'progressive' goals in advocating for home rule, the initiative, referendum, recall, public utilities, the eight hour day, free textbooks for public schools, and opposition to the use of private detectives.
Finally, working people dealt with racial and ethnic inequalities. The rise of the suburbs east of the city in the 1910’s-1960’s added to the “white flight' from downtown regions, but also the flight of necessary tax monies that could have built up better infrastructure for those still living in places like South and East Wheeling. The eventual deindustrialization and loss of industrial jobs downtown left a person without an economic safety net, but also the dignity and pride that comes with a job. People I have interviewed often discuss the feeling that 'I must have done something wrong.' The despair you see in them makes you want to explain the process all the more clearly, so others will promote public policy that does not forget about the 'lesser of these.'
In conclusion, I would have to say that my experiences at WJU made me into a totally new person. The combination of academic research and emphasis on service continues to inspire my academic pursuits. Now as I talk with students about their service work in East Wheeling or elsewhere, I can explain to them how things like urban renewal and restrictive covenants worked to limit some’s economic possibilities. In the same way, I hope your research will hopefully serve as broad an audience as possible. Remember, all research that keeps in mind the social, human question promotes the dignity of all and truly makes a more progressive society. Thank you all."
Mr. Hal Gorby was a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University’s Class of 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in history and minors in political science and philosophy. While at Jesuit, he was a member of several clubs, including the College Democrats, History Club, Philosophy Club (where he served as President), and as a member of the Pep Band for Jesuit home basketball games. Hal also worked for the Academic Resource Center as a history and writing tutor, while participating in service projects in East Wheeling, helping in Marshall County’s afterschool programs, and shortly after graduation going on a relief trip to New Orleans.
Since graduation, Hal has been pursuing graduate studies in American history at West Virginia University. He received his master’s degree in 2009, and is now in his first year as a doctoral student. Hal’s research focuses on the intersection of ethnicity, religion, and the working class during the 20th Century. His principal focus has been to examine the unique and forgotten history of South Wheeling and its largest immigrant groups, particularly the Polish. Hal hopes to illuminate how an in-depth study of class politics, ethnicity, and religion in Wheeling tells us about the regional urban development of this part of Appalachia and similar manufacturing cities nationally.
While at WVU, Hal received several fellowships, including the Anna Traubert Graduate Fellowship (2007-2008). He is currently a Stuart Robbins Doctoral Fellow (2009-2010). Hal has presented his work at the Appalachian Studies Conference, Ohio Valley History Conference, and the Working Class Studies Association Conference. He is also assisting with research on a book examining the West Virginia mine wars during the early 20th Century. A portion of Hal’s work “Subcultures in Conflict in Polonia: Class, Religion, and Ethnic Tensions in the Formation of Wheeling’s Polish Community, 1895-1917,” will appear in the Fall 2010 issue of West Virginia History. He continues to present his research to various community groups. When in Wheeling, Hal spends most of his free time taking many pictures of historical areas and, of course, enjoying the excellent cuisine of Salsa Café and Coleman’s Fish Market.