|As we celebrate February as Black History Month, the thoughts of the authors
turn to a fascinating chapter in our heritage - the story of the arrival of the first
black settlers in Sidney. This true tale begins with a most interesting white plantation
owner in Virginia.
Historian Russell Kirk
described him as "a radical man yet a political conservative" with "alternating
ferocity and compassion, his duels, his beautiful letters...his fits of madness...his
brandy and opium, his passionate Christianity, his lonely plantation life, and his
quixotic opposition to the great political and economic powers of the day." Kirk
was describing the man who would unknowingly contribute to the cultural richness Sidney
John Randolph of Roanoke was one of the leadersof perhaps the most powerful family in
the South from the late 1700's until at least the Civil War. He had served as the legislative
leader in the Virginia Assembly for his cousin, Thomas Jefferson. History records that he
ruled the Assembly with an iron hand - and a whip. He was the unquestioned master of a
string of plantations in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Jonathan Daniel's, in his book The
Randolphs of Virginia described the family as "America's foremost family,"
and Randolph as an orator and businessman "with few peers."
Although he competed stride for stride with other members of the Virginia aristocracy
by amassing over 8,000 acres of land and 400 slaves, John Randolph had doubts about the
morality of the use of slaves all of his life.
He was one of the first plantation owners to recognize the
benefits of educating his slaves and treating them as humanely as possible. Randolph
personally taught many of them to read and write. He also organized them into groups and
gave each separate tracts of land for which they were to be responsible - an unusual
approach in those days.
|A brilliant man
but eccentric, John Randolph strutted around the House of Representatives with a whip in
Economic expediency compelled him to accept
slavery as a fact of life while he lived, although he continually spoke against its evils.
John Randolph never married. He battled the effects of tuberculosis all his life, and the
use of opium as a pain killer resulted in his addiction to the substance. At the time of
his death in 1833, three wills were found, and each granted freedom to all 400 of his
slaves. His opium addiction, along with his contrarian views on issues, including slavery,
caused many to question his sanity. The ownership of slaves meant economic power, and
Randolph's next of kin immediately filed a will contest action, alleging he was
Thirteen years of legal battles followed. However, it was ultimately
determined that Randolph's will of 1821 was valid. In that document, his intent was made
clear: "I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting
that I have been the owner of one." John Randolph had gone to some lengths to see
that his plan would be carried out. He set aside $30,000 for the purchase of land in Ohio
and supplies for their journey to freedom. He secured the promise of an old friend and
judge, William Leigh, to settle the newly freed slaves in Ohio.
Although it was perhaps unknown to Randolph and Judge Leigh, Ohio in the 1840's was
anything but a hospitable place for people of color. Just a year after Ohio had become a
state in 1803, the General Assembly passed a law entitled "An Act To Regulate Black
and Mulatto Persons."
The law decreed that "No Negro or Mulatto should be allowed to settle in the
state unless he could furnish a certificate from some court...of his actual freedom...The
Blacks already living in the state must register before the following June with the county
clerk..." No black person could register without paying a registration fee of
twelve and a half cents. Whites were forbidden to employ a Negro unless he had a
certificate of freedom.
The newly freed Randolph slaves, now numbering 383, left Virginia on June 10, 1846 -
thirteen years after being given their freedom. They ranged in age from an infant less
than one year old to Granny Hannah, who had passed the century mark.
With them they carried a certificate of the Clerk of Court of Charlotte County,
Virginia, which listed the first names and a description of all the freed slaves. The
document confirmed that Shadrach, (No. 514),
born in 1796, was among those freed. He was destined to become an interesting part of
Sidney history. Also listed was Carter (No. 421). He would take the last name of Lee after
arriving in Shelby County, and his descendants would include Sidney's first black mayor.
This was no ordinary group of southern blacks. Randolph had to seen to it they were
educated. Typical was Clem Clay, who would become an engineer after settling in Ohio. Most
had developed trade skills. Some had horses, but the majority walked the 500 miles to what
they were sure would be the Promised Land.
Judge Leigh had carefully made his plans. According to
research later compiled by Rossville, Ohio historian Helen Gilmore and late local author
Leonard Hill, Leigh purchased about 3,200 acres of fertile Mercer County ground for in
excess of $6,000. It is probable that Judge Leigh had heard of Carthagena, a Mercer County
colony of free Blacks established by Augustus Wattles, a white Quaker, in the 1830's.
Leigh purchased some land near Carthagena,
and much land in the vicinity of Celina.
After making it to Cincinnati, the
adventurers worked their way up the Miami Erie
Canal toward Mercer County. They never made it. Waiting at the dock in New Bremen were
armed white settlers. Author Trudy Krisher recounted the scene in an article in a recent
edition of Ohio magazine. The bewildered Negroes listened as three
resolutions read out loud, one of which stated: "Resolved, That we will not live
among Negroes; as we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist
the settlement of blacks and mulattos in this county to the full extent of our means, the
bayonet not excepted." In later years, when the dispossessed land owners
inquired about their land, they were told it had been flooded and was useless. (In fact,
according to Helen Gilmore, there
is some evidence that water was released from Grand Lake St. Marys to temporarily cover
some of the land.)
An editorial on the Cincinnati Gazette on July 2, 1846,
commenting on the Randolph Slaves, summed up the feelings of many in Ohio at that time:
"And now the poor creatures are among us! Why should this be? The people of
Virginia...hear the call of death...the first step is to free the slaves, that they may
lull the unquiet knawings of conscience- next to send them to Ohio so that they may be
free. What right have they to be pouring in upon us their helpless, new made free?"
The boats continued south on the canal to Piqua. In testimony given in a subsequent
trial involving their land, Clem Clay recalled that they all left Piqua soon after to
"come to a place called Sidney." The former slaves were first taken to a
place in Shelby County Clay referred to as 'Carey's Plantation'. (The authors believe this
is the present day Fort Loramie.)
The July 14, 1893, edition of the Sidney Journal later carried an account of the
reception they encountered. "In July of 1846 quite a commotion was caused in the
village by the arrival of a boat carrying as passengers...about 100 Randolph slaves, just
set free. The boat passed up to the vicinity of Berlin (Now known as Fort Loramie), but
were not allowed to land. A mob received them with sticks and stones....It was the
exclamation of one of the old Negroes that he guessed his 'Master (referring to Randolph)
was his best friend, after all."
Clay and the others went next to Sidney. A mob began to gather here as well, but
appeals were made to their charity. Joseph Cummins, Guy Kelsey and others in Sidney
convened a meeting at a local hotel to debate what to do. It was decided to allow a number
of the Negroes to stay in Sidney. Clay recalled: "Well, a good class of white
people took some on the farm, and some around to the dwelling houses...some settled around
through Sidney...and the rest came to
It was therefore here that these proud men and women first
experienced the meaning of freedom and acceptance. The rest of the close-knit band boarded
the canal boats for other areas, including Piqua, Troy, and Xenia. Others, including
Carter Lee, eventually settled in New Bern, a canal town in Washington Township. Some went
to Rumley, a settlement of Blacks in Van Buren Township dating from 1830.
Although unfortunately history does not
record the recollections of Sidney's new citizens, the stories must have been fascinating.
George Brown, a house servant of John Randolph, was still living here in 1885. In a
passing reference to him, the December 18 edition of the Shelby County Democrat mentioned
he "is fond of telling about the good times." Earlier that year, the Journal reported the death of Robert Shelby, then more than 100 years old. He had driven a team of
horses from Randolph's plantation in Roanoke to Richmond, Virginia during the War of 1812.
Without a doubt the most popular
former Randolph slave was Shadrach White. He
had taken a surname after arriving in Ohio, as the others had also done. Over the years,
he became known around town simply as Buddie Shang. Local folk recalled that he was so
strong that he could lift railroad ties above his shoulders like matchsticks. His passions
were two: fishing, and corn liquor.
In a story previously chronicled in this paper, Buddie went on trial for murder in the
shooting death of a white man, Lewis Nichols, on January 27, 1890. An all white jury found
him not guilty after deliberating just three minutes. Once again, the people of Sidney had
demonstrated their tolerance for minorities. A local artist later painted a portrait of
Buddie that was used in advertisements around the country for years.
What of the Promised Land in Mercer County that had been purchased for Buddie Shang and
the others? Helen Gilmore found in her research that Joseph Plunkett of Mercer County was
appointed by Judge Leigh to look after his charges when he returned to Virginia. It was a
Beginning on December 16, 1846, Plunkett began to
sell the 3,000 plus acres of prime land to area land owners. In a series of transactions
over six years, he sold all the land for the total sum of $7,738. Evidence uncovered later
showed that Plunkett had forged Judge Leigh's signature on the deeds. Plunkett also rented
out some of the former slaves for work to local farmers. None of the money from the land
or labor ever went to any of the former Randolph slaves.
Commencing in 1900, the remnants of the original band of intrepid Randolph survivors,
(referring to themselves as the 'Originals" along with their offspring, known as the
'Buckeyes', assembled for reunions every few years. The Democrat reported in July
of 1902 that the old slaves gathered, "...and the tales they told of their
peculiar master were highly interesting."
In the reunions from 1900 to 1906, Manson Brown of Sidney
was elected an officer of the Randolph Slaves Association. Brown's relatives still reside
in the area. As a result of discussions at these meetings, many members decided to file
suit in order to recover the money rightfully due them from the sale of their Mercer
County lands. Attorneys Beam and Henderson of Indianapolis pursued the case for over ten
years, through the Ohio Supreme Court to the U.S. Supreme Court. At each level, the
judgment of the Mercer County Common Pleas Court was affirmed: the plaintiffs had waited
too long to sue, and the statute of limitations of 21 years had run out.
slave reunion at the Sidney, Ohio fairgrounds
The bitterness was felt by all the descendants, but it did
not deter many from pursuing successful careers. Jim Humphrey was born in New Bern, and
learned much of this story from members of the Carter Lee family. Humphrey combined a 30
year career at Amos Press with a continuous
commitment to civic responsibility. After serving on city council for six years, he was
elected Sidney's first black mayor in 1981. He served three terms until his retirement in
Humphrey has shared the experiences of his ancestors with many community groups over
the years. He feels the African-American experience cannot be told in one story or even a
hundred, for it is a living experience, ever changing and growing. Events of the past
serve to enrich our heritage, and our respect for the diversity of cultures that make us
what we are today. Sidney and its people, black and white, have played an important role
in this saga.
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