BOARDMAN, Ohio (WKBN) – On Oct. 12 in Columbus, Penny Wells will be inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, of which, she says she’s honored. Wells will be the second person with Youngstown ties to be selected. The other was the late Federal Judge Nathaniel Jones.
In talking with 27 First News at her home in Boardman, Wells spoke about being assaulted by a drunk husband in West Virginia while working for Vista. She was helped by a doctor one week out of medical school.
“Put 50 stitches in my left hand,” she said.
That’s the type of life Wells, now in her 70s, has lived. She talked about being born in Dallas to liberal parents.
“They embedded me with social justice, treating people equally,” Wells said.
In 1966, Wells spent time in Alabama registering Black voters and took part in Mississippi’s March Against Fear, where she saw Martin Luther King.
“Only from a distance at that march,” she recalled.
While in West Virginia, she met a Black man, Bill Wells, and followed him to Youngstown where he played basketball at Youngstown State University. Fifty years ago, they were married. It was hard at times.
“I will tell you, when I moved here, a lot of racism in Youngstown. The difference is that in the South, it was always very overt — you had signs. But here, it’s been very much more subtle,” Wells said.
In 2006, at the end of a 39-year career of teaching history in the Youngstown Schools, Wells started Sojourn to the Past, an annual nine-day trip to the South. It’s where students and adults tour and learn about the Civil Rights movement. She also challenges them.
“Do I need to look at the language that I use? Do I need to look at how I treat other people? What do I need to change about me?” Wells asked.
Among the pictures in Wells’ collection is one with Civil Rights leader John Lewis. But during her induction speech next week into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, she’ll talk about her granddaughter and what she did after a trip with Sojourn to the Past.
“She went to the school board and said these are the things I’ve experienced over this summer going on this Sojourn journey, and we have to teach this so it doesn’t happen again,” Wells said.
Wells also has soil she dug up from the site in Sandusky, Ohio, where, in September 1878, William Taylor, a Black man, was lynched. Wells sent some of the soil to the Equal Justice Initiative Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where it’s now part of a display of soil from lynching sites across the country.