She met her husband on Monday night, and she’s certain of that fact because it was on Mondays when African-Americans were allowed to skate at the roller rink that once stood where Market Plaza is today in downtown Wheeling.Ann Thomas was born into a world that was allowed to hate her without even knowing her, but she and her late husband refused to allow racism to stop them from making Friendly City history. She was born in 1938, was raised in East Wheeling, and attended Lincoln School from first grade through her sophomore year, and that was because she had to thanks to segregation.
That changed in 1954.
“That’s when we were given the option to either stay at Lincoln and graduate from there or to attend school in our own neighborhood,” the 77-year-old Thomas recalled. “I decided to transfer to Wheeling High for my final two years, and there were six others who did the same thing. I was scared during the first month because I didn’t know what to expect, but it went pretty well except for one individual who decided he needed to say something to me about it.
“But the best part was when several of the boys who heard what he said immediately questioned him about it and asked him what his problem was,” she said. “That’s when I knew the world was changing, even in a little town like Wheeling.”
Progress has been made since on the federal and state levels, and in Wheeling the nine members of the Human Rights Commission continue to receive and address allegations of discrimination. But it was Ann Thomas who crossed a line at a time when no one gave any black woman a chance. After her high school graduation in 1956 she dared to continue her education.
“And I was the first African-American to graduate from the nursing program at OVGH, and then Clyde became the first black councilman in Wheeling history,” Thomas said proudly. “I remember when Clyde came home and informed me that there was a group of people who wanted him to run for city council. I responded by saying, ‘Now who do you think is going to vote for you?’
“But his name had been out there because of football and because he was a successful business owner, and timing was everything. That was the early 1970s, and he ended up serving four terms on council, and he made a huge difference for everyone in Wheeling. He fought for everyone,” she continued. “At first when he was elected, no one knew what he was capable of, but it wasn’t long until people found out. But it was hard. It was definitely difficult for him.”
Clyde The Legend
“What two former Wheeling Ironmen who played with Clyde here in Wheeling played in the first-ever Super Bowl?” Ann asked.
“Andy Rice, who played for Kansas City, and Bob Brown, who played for Green Bay,” she answered. “That’s a bigger deal than a lot of people realize, and it’s still a part of this city’s history. He was a special man, and I’m not just saying that because he was my husband. He was special.”
Clyde Thomas earned a respected resume until his unfortunate passing on Oct. 12, 2006. As a student/athlete at Bellaire High School, he was named an Ohio all-stater in football and basketball, and he was mentioned in Sports Illustrated after serving as the starting running back for Ohio University’s undefeated team in 1960.
Clyde was then drafted to play in the Canadian Football League in 1961 by Vancouver British Columbia Lions, but then the United States Army came calling, and that interrupted his career until 1964, when he was a star on offense for the Wheeling Ironmen.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed him to play during the 1965-66 season, and then he returned to the Ironmen for three more years. In 1970 Clyde graduated from West Liberty State College, and then was elected to city council in 1971 and served his community for 20 years.
He owned and operated a Nationwide Insurance agency from 1969-1986, too, but neither the city of Wheeling nor the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference has honored him with Hall of Fame status.
In 2011, his son Scott, a 1983 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, composed a Letter to the Editor to the local newspapers that was published on Aug. 7, 2011, but still, nothing.
He wrote, “Editor, News-Register:
It’s time to honor a valley legend – Clyde Thomas, Bellaire, Ohio, native, was a stalwart civic leader in Wheeling, as a city councilman and vice-mayor, serving four consecutive terms on council, dating back to 1970. He was one of the lead councilmen for having the Wheeling Civic Center built, led the proposal for a downtown Wheeling Mall (look at us now), and is still the only African-American ever to be elected to Wheeling City Council.
Clyde Thomas was a valley sports legend, receiving all-state honors in football and basketball graduating from Bellaire High School. He was starting running back representing Ohio in the 1958 OVAC All-Star Football Game, starting alongside John Havlicek, who was the starting quarterback. He was a star running back for the undefeated Ohio University, 1960 Mid-American Conference Football Champions, member/player for the 1961 Canadian Football League, British Columbia Lions, MVP member/player for the Continental Football League, Wheeling Ironmen, during the mid to late 60s, and reached the pinnacle of playing in the NFL for the 1965 Philadelphia Eagles.
Why hasn’t my father been recognized by the City of Wheeling, or the OVAC, for his esteemed accomplishments on and off the field? I’m certain these accolades stack up with others who have been honored!
“It is something I’ve wondered about and something I would like to see while I’m still here,” Ann said. “It’s not as if he’s not deserving of the honor because very few men accomplished what he did on this Earth.
“Over in Bellaire he is honored, and he’s right next to Lance Mehl and Joey Galloway, but here in Wheeling, nothing, really,” she continued. “I would really love it if the city he loved and worked for for so many years would do the same thing.”
Ann Thomas was the first black school nurse in Ohio County School history, but there’s never been a second. Clyde Thomas was the first black city councilman, but there’s never been another African-American council member since.
The Thomas couple made history, but why hasn’t it repeated?
“Here’s my take on that topic,” Thomas said. “In a valley like we live in, we have not yet been forced to deal with our prejudices, so those who are have been able to harbor those feelings their entire lives. Are there less of those people? I believe so.
“We have so many ‘isms’ these days, and it doesn’t matter if you are tall, short, skinny, fat, black, white; there are people who are critical of everything for one reason or another. That’s just a fact,” she continued. “So many people make judgments based on whatever, and we shouldn’t be doing that. I also always tell young people when I speak in schools that they should be very careful with their judgments because they could be allowing themselves to miss getting to know a person who could be the best person in their lives.”
She’s been challenged by her health, too, since 1998 when she was diagnosed with cancer. After she lost her husband nearly 10 years ago, both of her sons, Shawn and Scott, have asked her if she would like to move in with them and their families.
“I have always told them, ‘No way,’ and I if they want to be closer to me, they can move home. I love living here in East Wheeling, but when people find out where I live, some question why. Some still think we have issues here in East Wheeling, but that’s only because of that old reputation and because East Wheeling is the most diverse area of our city,” Thomas said. “I tell them how safe it is here now, and I tell them that everyone knows where I live and that I like that.
“I know most of the kids who live here because I had most of them at Clay School when I was the school nurse there,” she continued. “I feel respected here, and I have always believed that if you want to be treated well, then you have to treat others the same way you wish to be treated. That’s how I have lived my life.”
Ann serves on several boards, including Habitat for Humanity, the Regional Economic Development Partnership, and West Liberty University, and she tells her story when given the chance because she believes it may allow others to feel the strength it takes to make positive change in the community
“What I cannot stand is the negativity from people who still feel the same way they did 40 years ago, and that’s why today I have friends of all ages,” Thomas said. “And when I fill in as a school nurse at Wheeling Park High, I love it because the young people give me an energy that I enjoy very much. Those young people give me something that you can’t buy.
“I’m never in a negative mode, and one reasons is that I know Clyde would be grinning ear-to-ear if he were here today. I know that,” she continued. “I am excited for both of us about what is about to happen here in Wheeling. It’s going to be a wonderful thing to watch.”
Cancer has slowed Ann Thomas, and she hates to admit it. In November 1998 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and three years ago she was informed she was also suffering from lung cancer. She takes a daily “chemo pill” these days, medication that proves difficult at times.
“But I am here still today through the grace of God, and that means I have had the chance to see all of the positive things that have been happening here the last few years,” she said. “But I believe, of course, that we need more and more jobs in this area so that our young people who went to college and graduated stop taking their skills out of town. We need those folks to be able to use those skills right here in Wheeling. And, in my opinion, I believe we need to continue to make this a more diverse community.
“I say that because of what my youngest son, Scott, has told me. He says, ‘Mom, you and Dad gave us opportunities that most white kids don’t get, but I can’t move back to Wheeling because of what Wheeling doesn’t have socially and economically,” she said. “I would love to see that change because, of course, I would love for my children to live closer.
“I am very excited for our community, and I am excited that if young people decide to move to downtown that our downtown businesses will prosper, and we’ll also see many more new businesses open up. We will need new restaurants, and we will need more shops and things like that with that many more people living and working in the downtown,” she added. “I am hopeful that I will live long enough to see it all happen because I am very much looking forward to seeing it all move forward.”
(Photos provided by the Thomas family)