The Mysteries of Mabel
For months, I looked for evidence of a Mabel Hull in Wheeling, and came away with only scraps of information--until I finally found her family.
Mabel Hull was an African American newspaper columnist, working woman, and mother who lived in Wheeling, WV during the mid-20th century. I became interested in her story after browsing several scrapbooks of her newspaper clippings that had been sitting in the Ohio County Public Library Archives, gathering metaphorical dust. Mabel’s columns ranged in topics from society news to local events, painting a vivid picture of a vibrant Black community in Jim Crow Wheeling.
Female journalists--let alone Black female journalists--were underrepresented in the mid-20th century, so I decided to find out more about Mabel with the intention of doing a relatively quick article about her history and work. I scoured censuses, archival material, newspapers, and other records and could only find bits and pieces here and there. I asked people who seem to always know everyone in Wheeling, past and present, and they had never even heard of Mabel. She felt like a ghost. My last ditch attempt was to find her descendents, but I wasn’t hopeful, considering the majority of her six children were dead.
Through a son’s obituary, I managed to track down an email and decided to shoot my shot--within 24 hours, I was in touch with several of Mabel’s grandchildren and her only living daughter, who made Mabel come alive. They shared stories, memories, anecdotes, and photos that quadrupled my understanding of Mabel and opened new doors to historical documentation I didn’t even know to look for.
Apart from the scrapbooks sitting in the basement archives of the Library, there is very little trace of Mabel left in Wheeling. The street where she lived, Morrow Street, no longer exists due to urban renewal, none of her direct descendents live in Wheeling anymore, and the department stores she worked at closed long ago. After researching and learning Mabel’s history, I used my platform to share her almost-forgotten story with the Wheeling community through an article on Weelunk and a public lecture at the Library--yards away from where her scrapbooks lived.
The reception of Mabel’s story was amazing. Community members at the lecture questioned why her story has been covered up for so long in a town that loves to explore its local history--I encouraged them to continue to search for others like Mabel, amazing histories that have gone untold. Some of Mabel’s descendants watched the livestream of the lecture and Gina Stewart, Mabel’s granddaughter and strongest advocate, told me that I had found “the pearl in the shell” because she never stopped believing that her grandmother’s story was worth telling.
Emma is the Preserve WV AmeriCorps member serving with Wheeling Heritage during the 2020-2021 program year.
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