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Ric S. Sheffield  

Author on Gender, Race & Ethnicity; Professor of Legal Studies and Sociology at Kenyon College

Kenyon College Professor Emeritus Ric Sheffield is a much sought-after public speaker and presenter of programs not commonly offered by other Diversity and Inclusion or African American History speakers. His programs focus upon the elusive concept of “rural diversity,” a little-understood and not often addressed topic.

In addition to a background that includes time spent as a civil rights attorney and more than three decades as a college professor, Sheffield has researched, written, and presented about the Black experience in rural America. Just as the diversity of African American life and culture cannot be reduced to a monolith, the experiences of Black folks in rural spaces are not often captured or represented in today’s literature, media or popular depictions.

Author of “We Got By: A Black Family’s Journey in the Heartland” (Ohio State University Press – Trillium Imprint 2022), Sheffield has given more than a couple hundred talks and is widely regarded as a leading expert on the topic of Black folks in rural America.

A graduate of Case Western Reserve University where he attended college, graduate school in sociology, and law school, he has designed workshops on exploring local Black history as well as examining rural diversity. He is hoping that his most recent work, “Suffrage Chronicles: Stories of Courage in the Struggle for Black Voting Rights in the North,” might be released in time for the 2024 election.

Speech Topics

Diversity in the Heartland: Exploring the Impact of Increasing Diversity on Small-town Culture

The rural Midwest region of this nation has been home to various racial and ethnic groups, albeit in small numbers, from the earliest days of settlement by non-indigenous people. This absence of a significant numerical presence resulted in the lives and experiences of these people being largely overlooked, if not outright ignored, by the mainstream press, academicians, and local historians. Even popular culture, by the absence of the depiction of rural folks of color, suggests that their presence was either non-existent or didn’t have any meaningful impact upon the region. Among the earliest migrants to the area were African Americans, both free and formerly enslaved. The migration patterns throughout the Midwest saw many, if not most, Black families head north out of southern states during Reconstruction and again after the World Wars largely to seek work in rapidly industrializing urban areas like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. A much smaller proportion of the Black migrants chose to settle in rural areas where they could take up farming or engage in other types of wage labor within small-town environments with which they were familiar. European immigrants came to the rural Midwest to join family and former townsmen who had settled in these areas. Regardless of their countries of origin or the fact that many were non-English speakers, white migrants more easily integrated into the social fabric of small towns because of race. For most other nonwhite persons, there were few of the traditional draws to settle there: no specialized labor market or economic attractions; no existing ethnic or cultural enclaves; and few familial ties. As a consequence, racial and cultural differences became and have remained major factors in how communities are organized and experienced despite the fact that white residents tend not to see or even accept that to be the case. This program sheds light on these hidden “communities within.”

A History of Race and the Right to Vote: The Example of the Reconstruction Era Ohio Cases

The right to vote, long hailed as the embodiment, sine qua non, of liberty in American society has special historical significance for persons of African descent in the United States. While many northern newspapers were quick to condemn the recalcitrant southern states’ resistance to granting suffrage to Black men, few citizens appreciated how often African Americans suffered the same indignities in the regions north of the Mason-Dixon line. The quest for this quintessential right of citizenship was fraught with challenges and frustration, even in free states like Ohio, especially in rural communities. In weighing the often-dire consequences of resistance to attempts to vote against the potential gains thought to come from the elective franchise, Black Americans in the upper Midwest literally risked life, limb, and livelihood to claim their places at the polls.

The Community Within: Discovering African American History in the Rural Midwest

Many rural areas throughout the Midwest have long-established Black communities that are often invisible to the larger white communities in which they reside. This program relates the adventure of discovering and reclaiming the lost history of African Americans in rural Knox County, Ohio as a typical example. It also seeks to explain the benefits and critical importance of including minority populations within celebrations of heritage while sharing strategies for undertaking such projects in communities of various sizes and racial and ethnic makeups.

Bricks & Mortar Won’t Do: Building Bridges for Rural Diversity on the Shoulders of Empathy and Compassion

This talk is intended to explore the question: “Why empathy, necessary for true racial reckoning in any environment, seems harder to come by in rural America.” Sometimes, it seems like simply a numbers game: there aren’t enough of “them” to gain an understanding of people not like yourself. When probing a bit deeper, it becomes clear that residents of rural areas have fewer opportunities to disabuse themselves of racial stereotypes as well as less exposure to both reasons for and strategies to change negative attitudes about others. Drawing upon examples of cross-racial encounters and exchanges in rural America, the program seeks to reveal many of the primary reasons that it is so common and easy for white people to profess not to “see race.” Until they do, they will be stuck in a space fraught with fear of accusation of insensitivity and racism. It can be a bumpy road to travel, but it is more likely to lead somewhere than continuing to deny that racial issues and tension exist in those friendly little towns.

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