Teacher, students make history at capital

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 25, 2010

Everyday, high school students in Washington Court House have the opportunity to learn about the history of our region, state and nation from one of the most dedicated and innovative educators in the country.

Paul LaRue, who has taught at Washington High School in Fayette County for more than 25 years and started a research history class in 1998 for juniors and seniors, was recently honored as the Ohio History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and won the 2010 America the Story of Us: Innovation in History Education contest through the History Channel.

This past week, State Senator Mark Wagoner and I presented Mr. LaRue with a resolution in the Ohio Senate Chamber recognizing this accomplishment and all he has done for his school and the community.

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Paul was accompanied by several of his students, who had the opportunity to tour the historic Statehouse and meet with state legislators.

Mr. LaRue’s hard work and passion in the classroom has earned him numerous accolades while his unique, hands-on approach to teaching history has not only helped to enhance his students’ learning experience, but put them in a position to help educate other Ohioans about the story of our state. Paul and his students also have a connection to me in unwittingly making history.

During the 126th Ohio General Assembly, Mr. LaRue and his Washington High School research history class worked with then-State Representative Sylvester Patton from Youngstown to introduce legislation in the Ohio House that would designate Sept. 22 as Emancipation Day in Ohio, in honor of the anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862.

Their work was part of a larger class project designed to collect and preserve data on the history of the Emancipation.

The Emancipation Day legislation came up for a vote in the Senate at a time when many other bills were being considered right before the Legislature went on a break. At those moments, patience is often strained and tempers can flare.

Representative Patton, who is an African American Democrat, asked me as a Republican to carry the bill in the Senate because I represented both Washington Court House and Gallia County, which is home to the longest running Emancipation Day celebration in Ohio.

I was very honored to do so. Before session began, I expected to give a brief speech and then sit down and wait for the Senate President to ask for a vote.

I was not aware, however, that one of my Democratic colleagues in the Senate felt that he should have been the person to carry the bill.

A contentious debate erupted in the chamber, not over the merits of the legislation but about racism and the history of the Emancipation Proclamation. It got so bad that session had to be put on hold.

I was upset that such a worthy and seemingly uncontroversial bill had created a brouhaha in the Senate, and I could not find Representative Patton to help straighten out the situation.

Eventually, things calmed down, the Senate reconvened and the bill passed 33-0. I was still embarrassed about the process though.

Part of the value of studying history is that we can learn from our past mistakes, and while we all have disagreements, it is important to work together to find common ground and look for ways to improve ourselves, our state and the country.

Months after debate erupted on the Senate floor, casting a cloud over the passage of the Emancipation Day bill, the General Assembly approved Senate Bill 277 to create the National Statuary Collection Study Committee, a bipartisan group of members from the Ohio House and Senate charged with recommending a great Ohioan to replace former Ohio Governor William Allen, a supporter of slavery and critic of President Lincoln, in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. National Statuary Hall was created by federal law in 1864 and allowed each state to provide two statues honoring deceased individuals from their state who have contributed to history.

Fittingly, the sponsor of SB 277 was one of the members involved in the debate preceding the vote on the Emancipation Day proposal.

Beginning in August 2009, the Statuary Collection Study Committee held numerous public meetings throughout the state to learn more about the lives and contributions of many great Ohioans, narrowing a list of more than 90 nominees to 10.

Then, between March and June of this year Ohioans of all ages were given an opportunity to vote at museums and historical sites for the person they believe would best represent Ohio in Statuary Hall.

As part of another class project, Mr. LaRue and his research history students successfully advocated to include James Ashley, a congressman, abolitionist and author of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, on the list. They also developed interactive lesson plans, including biographical information, quotes from the finalists and podcasts, to serve as a tool to educate young people about Ohio history and help encourage students at all grade levels to participate in the Statuary Committee process.

Of the nearly 50,000 Ohioans who cast a ballot, Thomas Edison, who was born in Milan, Ohio, was the top choice with 14,833 votes. James Ashley received just 515 votes, but 469 of those were from students.

The heated exchange prior to passage of the Emancipation Day bill was one of the more regrettable moments in my 16 years in the General Assembly. But, just as America has worked to rectify and learn from the mistakes of our fore fathers, the Senate came back months after this argument and worked in a bipartisan fashion to pass SB 277, replacing the statue of a pro-slavery, ex-Governor with a person who better embodies the values of Ohioans today.

In the process, tensions between legislators were mended; Mr. LaRue and his students had the opportunity to work on another research history project, studying the life of James Ashley and the 13th Amendment; and many other historians, school children and residents of our state had the chance to learn more about Ohio history and the many great people who helped build this state.

Just the same, I hope I do not cause the break of up of any more sessions.

Senator John A. Carey Jr., can be reached at the Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215, or at his office at (614) 466-8156. You can also visit his page on the Ohio Senate website at www.ohiosenate.gov/john-carey.