Mob chased Randolph Freedpeople away with bayonet, threats. Descendants deserve Ohio land.

Rossville Public School, c. 1915. The school was established in 1872 and is no longer standing today. Two of the original bricks are preserved at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio
Rossville Public School, c. 1915. The school was established in 1872 and is no longer standing today. Two of the original bricks are preserved at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio

State Representative Dontavius Jarrells, D-Columbus, is a member of the Ohio State House of Representatives, representing District 1, and serves as the assistant minority leader.

As the fundamental freedoms that would shape America were being drafted, our Founding Fathers declared that the People were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That declaration was not just a vision for their time, but a mandate for all generations to come.

The democracy our founders envisioned was never meant to be completed; it was to be an ongoing endeavor.

Today, as responsible citizens and leaders, it is our duty to continue this work. This requires acknowledging our failures, learning from them, and forging ahead together. Among our greatest failures, America’s original sin has been and remains—the enduring legacy of slavery.

Helen Gilmore was a descendant of York Rial and the founder and director of the Rossville Museum and Cultural Center, which she ran out of York Rial’s historic home. Here, she continued the tradition of family reunions her ancestors began at the turn of the 20th century. In this photo, she stands next to fellow descendant James P. Humphrey, whose ancestors were Carter and Phoebe Lee. Humphrey was a graduate of Central State College, WWII veteran, and a member of the NAACP. He became Sidney’s first Black mayor in1981 after serving as city councilman.

Every so often, we are given an opportunity to confront this legacy and correct history’s greatest wrong. One such opportunity has presented itself through the story of the Randolph Freedpeople, a chapter of Ohio history that remains largely untold but is crucial to our collective understanding and growth.

Randoph Freedpeople denied promised land

In 1833, John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, freed his roughly 400 slaves, expressing deep regret for having owned them.

Randolph provided these freed individuals, known as the Randolph Freedpeople, with approximately 3,200 acres of land and the means to relocate. After a prolonged legal battle over his will, the Randolph Freedpeople began their exodus from Virginia to Mercer County, Ohio, in June 1846.

This text was printed in the October 8, 1846 edition of the Defiance Democrat under the headline "Let Ohio Look to Her INTEREST IN TIME! and the sub headlines "Bebb and the Nigger Laws." and "The Unconditional Repeal of the Black Laws."
This text was printed in the October 8, 1846 edition of the Defiance Democrat under the headline "Let Ohio Look to Her INTEREST IN TIME! and the sub headlines "Bebb and the Nigger Laws." and "The Unconditional Repeal of the Black Laws."

Their journey was met with resistance.

Upon learning of their arrival, white landowners in Mercer County resolved to prevent the Freedpeople from settling, even threatening violence. When the Randolph Freedpeople arrived, they were met by armed mobs and forced to turn back, despite having a legal right to the land.

Denied their promised land, the Randolph Freedpeople were left to wander, eventually settling in parts of Shelby and Miami County, with many making Piqua their new home.

Our View: We must remember, work against 'America’s original sin' this long weekend

For generations, they and their descendants have contributed significantly to their communities, to Ohio, and to America. Yet, the promise of freedom and opportunity that Ohio was supposed to represent was denied to them.

Correcting a grave error

This historical episode, unfolding in the years leading up to the Civil War, starkly illustrates that the freedom promised to slaves in the North was far from guaranteed. Ohio turned its back on the Randolph Freedpeople, and now is the time for us to acknowledge this failure, learn from it, and move forward.

With the help of the descendants of the Randolph Freedpeople and other local leaders, we have an opportunity to right this wrong.

We are looking at options to address the injustices faced by the descendants of the Randolph Freedpeople. Ohio lacked the courage to do the right thing then, but I believe we have the courage today.

This is our opportunity to continue the work started by our Founding Fathers. We can recognize this dark chapter in Ohio’s past and write a new one that brings hope, closure, and the promise of a better future. The America we live in today does not have to reflect the injustices of the past. By seizing opportunities like this, we can build a more perfect union, for all of us.

State Representative Dontavius Jarrells, D-Columbus, is a member of the Ohio State House of Representatives, representing District 1, and serves as the assistant minority leader.

State Rep. Dontavius Jarrells is a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, representing District 25, which includes portions of Columbus, Clinton Township and Mifflin Township.
State Rep. Dontavius Jarrells is a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, representing District 25, which includes portions of Columbus, Clinton Township and Mifflin Township.

Excerpt from Dontavius Jarrells letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on behalf of descendants of the Randolph Freedpeople delivered June 13:

"Upon his death in 1833, John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, freed his roughly 400 slaves, stating in his will that he 'give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one.'

Randolph also provided the freedpeople, known as The Randolph Freedpeople, with land and the means to relocate. After a prolonged legal battle over his will, the Randolph Freedpeople finally began their exodus from Roanoke, Virginia, in June 1846 to what was to be their new home in Mercer County, Ohio.

After several weeks of travel, the Randolph Freedpeople arrived in Cincinnati, where they took boats north on the Miami Erie Canal toward their final destination. However, word had spread to the white landowners in Mercer County that the former slaves were traveling to their new home legally inherited by them. The residents of Mercer County resolved, 'we will not live among negroes, and as we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist the settlement of blacks and mulattos in this country, to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted.'

This was hardly in line with the dream of unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

When the Randolph Freedpeople finally made it to the shores of Mercer County, they were met by mobs of white residents and their bayonets. Left with the choice of staying and risking their lives, the Randolph Freedpeople turned their boats around and headed south along the canal.

Like Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the Randolph Freedpeople were denied entrance to their promised land and forced to wander.

Randolph descendants Sammy Robert Johnson and Eddie Bennet were veterans of World War I and sent a postcard home to Springfield while overseas in France.
Randolph descendants Sammy Robert Johnson and Eddie Bennet were veterans of World War I and sent a postcard home to Springfield while overseas in France.

They eventually settled in parts of Shelby and Miami County, with many making Piqua, Ohio, their new home. For generations now, they have contributed to their community, to Ohio, and to America.

Considering this all happened in the years leading up to the Civil War, with a nation divided, the freedom promised to slaves in the North was anything but guaranteed. How Ohio handled this situation is a prime example.

Despite being given their freedom, Ohio turned its back on the Randolph Freedpeople. Now is the time for Ohio to acknowledge its failure, learn from it, and move forward.

In 1988, Randolph descendant Mary Gillem Rosa was honored by the city of Piqua on her 101st birthday. At that time, she was the oldest living descendant of the Randolph Freedpeople.
In 1988, Randolph descendant Mary Gillem Rosa was honored by the city of Piqua on her 101st birthday. At that time, she was the oldest living descendant of the Randolph Freedpeople.

With the help of descendants of the Randolph Freedpeople and other local leaders, I am exploring legal and just means to right this wrong and finally give what they legally inherited almost 200 years ago. And I seek your support.

I am not advocating for reparations or eminent domain. I propose identifying state-owned land in Mercer County and returning it to the descendants of the Randolph Freedpeople."

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Descendants of freed Blacks chased from Ohio land deserve property now

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