Political Peculiarities and the Blues at People’s University

Editor’s note: The Ohio County Public Library has launched its 26th People’s University, an eight-week series featuring weird, wild, wacky, whimsical stories from Wheeling, including: Native-American oddities, frontier follies, Civil War conundrums, Victorian unconventionalities, Progressive Era incongruities, political peculiarities, hotel hijinks, morbid mysteries and more! Let Weelunk give you just a little insight into these programs — but don’t miss the expanded presentations at the library! Today, we get a sneak peek into Week Six of the series, set to unfold at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, to be presented by Dr. Joseph Laker.

Quite a few important and sometimes not so important events have occurred in Wheeling since its founding. The four that I will discuss on Tuesday, May 14, are the following:

• The 1870 election brought about a dramatic shift in power, both in Wheeling and in the new state of West Virginia. The Democrat Party won a sweeping victory over the Republicans, who had been the main proponents of separating West Virginia from Virginia. The Democrats would dominate the state politically for the next 20 years. Questions I propose to answer are: Why was the election so important? What were the consequences of the Democratic victory?

• On Saturday night, May 16, 1931, Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues” was arrested by Wheeling police and jailed until her boyfriend bailed her out. She hurriedly packed her belongs and fled town. I will spend time talking about Bessie’s career, why she was in town, why arrested and a bit of her subsequent career.

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• On Feb. 9, 1950, Wisconsin’s junior senator, Joseph McCarthy, spoke to a gathering of Republican party supporters at the McLure hotel. McCarthy’s visit to Wheeling electrified the nation when he charged that communists were in the government, especially the State Department. I will focus on who McCarthy was, why he was in Wheeling and why he made the charges that he did. I will also look at how his speech was viewed in Wheeling and the consequences of his speech both for him and the nation.

• Nixon and Eisenhower met at Wheeling’s airport on Sept. 24, 1952. The meeting was held during the election campaign of 1952 by which the Republican Eisenhower-Nixon ticket defeated the Democratic Stevenson-Sparkman ticket. The meeting was held during a very tense time for the Republican campaign, and there was much speculation that Nixon would be knocked off the ticket. I will look at the reasons behind the speculation and how the press covered the meeting.

• Dr. Joseph Laker was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. Following his graduation from Marian College with a degree in history, he spent two years teaching English conversation in Kyoto, Japan. He returned home to seek advanced degrees at Indiana University and received his doctoral degree in history in 1975. He spent the next 33 years at Wheeling Jesuit University. He has written a number of articles on various aspects of Japanese and world history. Since retiring in 2008, he was written a history on Wheeling Jesuit and a variety of articles on West Virginia history.