SCHS Header
Link to Homepage
Link to About Us page
Link to Staff & Board page
Link to Ross Center page
Link to Exhibits page
Link to Events Calendar page
Link to Archives page
Link to Online Store
Link to Membership page
Link to Volunteer page
Link to Contact Us page
Historical photo show 100 years ago header

100 Years Ago

Black History
Civil War
Gold Rush
Law and Order

  Feature Article on Randolph slaves. Topic: BLACK HISTORY
Written by Jim Humphrey & Rich Wallace in February, 1997


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 enjoys today.

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.

johnrandolph.gif (41793 bytes)
A brilliant man but eccentric, John Randolph strutted around the House of Representatives with a whip in his hand.

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 incompetent.

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 tragic mistake.

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.

Randolph slave reunion at the Sidney, Ohio fairgrounds

randolphslavereunion.gif (114108 bytes)

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 1987.

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.


[ Back to Black History Index

Article Footer
SCHS footer Link to Home page Link to About Us Information Link to the Ross Center Information Link to our Events Calendar Information Link to our Archives Information Link to our Online Store / Products Information Link to our Membership Information Link to our Volunteering Information Link to our Contact Information Link to Staff & Board Information Link to our Current & Upcoming Exhibits Information Link to our Donation Information