Next week I start my archival research for my project on rural black communities in western Ohio. I’m planning to visit a number of small historical collections, public libraries, etc. and in preparation have been emailing these repositories and other interested locals.
I’ve been thrilled with the feedback and responses but also surprised at the story they tell. The Emlen Institute was originally founded in Mercer County, Ohio, by Augustus Wattles in the 1830s and designed to give indigenous people and free blacks a technical education. Wattles wrote to his brother John that he envisioned bring free blacks who were victims of Cinncinnati’s 1829 race riots to the school for education. My census study indicates that many rural free blacks from nearby Logan county ventured to the Institute as well.
But, when I ask local historians and repositories about the Emlen Institute they talk mostly about the slaves of Judge John Randolph. Randolph caused quite the stir when he freed his slaves in his will and instructed them to provided for and transported to a safe (northern) location. There were disputes over his will (he had three different wills upon his death) and disputes over where to send the slaves but his 1821 will was clear that they should be sent to land bought for them in Ohio.
After his death in 1833, Judge Randolph’s friend William Leigh bought land in Mercer County for the slaves to live on. But the process was slow and the slaves didn’t leave Virginia until 1846. The former slaves’ reception in Ohio was less than enthusiastic. They were harassed as they headed north on canal boats and stopped altogether at Piqua and Sidney. Most would never arrive in Mercer County and instead settled in other communities (including the village of Rumley–a black community created by historically free black families to aid formerly enslaved black individuals) and some on the outskirts of Mercer County.
Those former Randolph slaves who did arrive in Mercer County did not arrive before 1846 but the Emlen Institute had existed for several years before their arrival. Men like Peter Banks who had lived in Logan County, Ohio in the 1830s and Nathan Newsome who helped to found Logan County moved to Mercer County at least temporarily during the Emlen Institute years. Burwell Archer moved there from Logan county with his wife at least long enough to be counted in the 1850 census.
It is clear that many former slaves, some Randolph’s, lived in and around Mercer County but that isn’t the whole story. And, I find myself surprised that the Emlen Institute in Mercer County is always spoken of in the same breath as the Randolph slaves in local lore since they were clearly not the only people educated there.
This story and the trope of the refused freed slaves has a lot of resonance in Western Ohio. A similar story is told about former slaves moving to Paulding County via the canals. Logan County tales of the underground railroad also emphasize the unwillingness of many in those communities to participate or condone aiding runaway slaves.
Often times these tales are told with a sad shake of the head. “Not Us. We didn’t help.” Sometimes, in those few communities were rural black families did settle it is said “Not Them. But we did.” Regardless of how those black families were treated once they arrived.
Always in these stories, however, the black families were former slaves. That belief is simply not true.