MY WORD: Leadership class walks a few steps of Shelby's history

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By Ashlea Christiansen

You may wonder what a cemetery, theater and pet portraits have to do with one another. The answer is Arts & History Day – one of Leadership Shelby Class of 2013’s spring outings. The goal of the day’s activities was to acquaint us with the community resources for art and to provide an understanding of Shelby County’s history.

We began our day at the Shelby County Public Library, were treated to Helen Ballard’s “Back in the Day” on a Main Street Wallpaper Tour that detailed the history of each building along Shelbyville’s most historic stretch, and Charles Long presented a slide show that explained the history and many architectural contributions of the Gruber family.

We then received a tour of the library by library Director Pam Federspiel and listened afterwards to Fred J. Rogers speak about the role of the Shelbyville Historic District Commission in maintaining the delicate balance between historical accurateness and financial reasonableness when it comes to proposed changes to historical buildings in Shelbyville.

We journeyed to Grove Hill Cemetery, where we were entertained in the chapel (designed and built by the Gruber family) by Mike Harrod and Duanne Puckett, who told colorful stories about several of the folks buried there. During lunch the group enjoyed a brief talk by Long about the history of the Meriwether House, and we traveled to Artists on Main, where we admired the many forms of art that the talented residents of Shelby County produce – from stained glass to jewelry, collages to pet portraits.

From there, we briefly stopped by the Shelbyville History and Heritage Center and then walked on to the Shelby County Community Theatre. There, community members Roland Dale, Brenda Jackson and Vivian Overall gave an eye-opening and heart-breaking look back at Shelbyville in the days of segregation. We finished our day with a tour of the theater.

Some interesting facts that we learned along the way:

In 1840 Louis Henry Gruber – apparently very fit – walked from Baltimore to Shelbyville. He took on various jobs including using hemp to make ropes. He, along with his sons, later designed and built many of the historical buildings that still exist in Shelby County today. His son Lynn T. Gruber served as Mayor of Shelbyville for three terms.

In the 1820s, “rural pleasure spots” came about for burials, leading to the creation of beautiful park-like cemeteries that boast water features and monument grave markers

The Grove Hill Chapel, originally dedicated in 1893, fell into disrepair. Betty Matthews, a current Shelbyville resident, wanted to see the Grove Hill Chapel restored to its original beauty. She spearheaded a community effort to raise over $50,000, and the chapel reopened in 1998. The chapel is used for funeral services and the occasional wedding, and walking tours are offered of the cemetery. For example, at 11 a.m. on Memorial Day a colors presentation will be offered by the local VFW. Residents are invited to come as they are and remember those who have served.

Artists on Main is a shop on Main Street that acts as a co-op, consisting of the work of 10 juried artists, all from Shelby County. Their works range from photography to pottery, oil pastels to stained glass. The shop is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and it always welcome new artists.

The Shelby County Public Library (which was built on Shelbyville’s first cemetery in 1903) offers everything from meeting space to GED classes, free (legal) music downloads to divorce packets…and memberships are free.

The Whitney M. Young, Jr. Job Corps in Simpsonville is located in what used to be the Lincoln Institute, which was an all-African-American high school. Boarding students lived in dormitories on campus, and day students attended as well. Its main building, which is the tower in the center of today’s Job Corps campus, was named Berea Hall because of its connection with Berea College, which started the school.

During segregation, the local elementary schools for African-Americans were built on top of the city dumps. Used, torn-up books were passed down from the city system, and glass littered the playgrounds. There were separate hospitals for African-Americans and African-Americans only were allowed to sit in the balcony of the movie theaters. African-Americans were not allowed to eat in local restaurants and were not allowed to sit in restaurants while waiting for an order. Whites were served first – regardless of who had been in line first.

A group of African-American students were asked to attend formerly all-white schools the year before the schools officially were integrated. Those African-American students had a difficult time. They were bullied and told that they didn’t belong. Integrated schools stopped giving awards when it was realized that African-American students would be qualified to receive them. One of the things that stands out as a reminder of the wrongs of yesterday is the inability of most African-Americans to leave a legacy or land to their descendants as whites have been able to do for hundreds of years.

The Shelby County Community Theatre is a “black box theatre” – an adaptable, experimental space that places the audience close to the show and focuses on acting rather than props. The theater welcomes community members to tryouts and is always looking for new faces and also offers drama camps and workshops. Check out http://www.shelbytheatre.org/

Special thanks to the Shelby County Public Library, Commonwealth Bank and Shelby County Community Theatre for sponsoring our meals and snacks, and to Debby Magan, Fielding Ballard and Cheryl Van Stockum for serving as day chairs and to Cathie Wiegand, the board of directors’ representative.

Reflecting upon our day, the members of the 2013 Leadership Shelby Class determined that, much like its art, Shelby County offers a rich tapestry of history. The people and personalities are vibrant and textures of their stories are varied and interwoven. We believe, however, that the very best part of the story is that this work of art is still being created.


Ashlea Christiansen is a member of the Leadership Shelby Class of 2013.