Biography: Ann Prince Thomas
Ann Prince Thomas (1938-2020) is a pioneer and witness to history. She was just six months old when her mother moved to Wheeling from a North Carolina tobacco farm to help Ann’s aunt and uncle run the New Dixie Restaurant on Chapline Street in the middle of what was, at the time, an established African American neighborhood. Ann grew up during the turbulent transition from segregated Wheeling to desegregated Wheeling. From first grade, she attended Lincoln School. But thanks to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), she graduated from Wheeling High School in 1956.
After graduation, Ann enrolled in the Ohio Valley General Hospital’s school of nursing. Despite many obstacles, in 1959, she became the first African American to graduate. She passed her boards and worked at Ohio Valley General Hospital for 12 years, then as an Ohio County school nurse for 30 more.
The roller-skating rink in the market auditorium (now Market Plaza) was open to African American teens on Monday nights. That’s where Ann met her future husband, Clyde Thomas (1940-2006). They were married in Wayman A.M.E. Church in 1960.
An all-state athlete in basketball and football at Bellaire High School, Clyde started at running back for Ohio in the 1958 OVAC All-Star Football Game, alongside quarterback John Havlicek, the future Boston Celtics legend.
Clyde Thomas played college football for Ohio University, and starred on the undefeated Mid-American Conference Championship team as a senior in 1960. An All-American, Clyde was mentioned in Sports Illustrated.
He went on to a successful career as a hard running halfback for the Wheeling Ironmen, the local semi-professional football team. Clyde later played for a little over a year with the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL before a broken foot ended his NFL career. He returned to Wheeling, continued playing for the Ironmen and finished his college degree at West Liberty. When he retired from the Ironmen he was the franchise’s all-time rushing leader. In 1964, he led the United Football League with an impressive 6.6 yards per rush. He was inducted into the American Football Association’s Minor Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
After retiring from football, Clyde ran for City Council, won by a landslide, and served four terms. Also serving as vice-mayor, he helped get the Wheeling Civic Center built, and led the proposal for a downtown Wheeling shopping mall.
He was the first and, to date, the only African American ever elected to Wheeling’s City Council.
Since her husband died in 2006, Ann Thomas has continued to organize reunions of players from the Wheeling Ironmen.
(From Legendary Locals of Wheeling, by Seán Duffy, Ann Thomas)
Hear Ann's story in her own words: The Wheeling Memory Project, Series 1: Growing Up in Jim Crow Wheeling