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The Story of Longtown, Ohio – A Town Where Color Didn’t Matter

There were two sizeable Tri-Racial communities in Ohio – this is the story of one, and efforts to preserve it’s history. Longtown was “Post-racial”…Before anyone else in America came up with the idea.

 

An Ohio town where races have mixed freely for more than 200 years

Amid the corn and soybean fields of western Ohio lies a progressive crossroads where black and white isn’t black and white, where the concept of race has been turned upside down, where interracial marriages have been the norm for nearly two centuries. The heavy boots of Jim Crow have never walked here.

Founded by James Clemens, a freed slave from Virginia who became a prosperous farmer, Longtown was a community far ahead of its time, a bold experiment in integration.

Now that history is in danger of being lost. Longtime Longtown residents are dying, and whites are moving in and buying property. Many historically black-owned buildings have already been torn down or remodeled.

But Clemens’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson is working to save his family’s heritage. Though his eyes are blue and his skin is pale, Connor Keiser, 22, said that his childhood is filled with memories of “cousins of all colors” playing in the pastures at the family farm.

“We were a typical Longtown family. We all looked different, and we were taught that color didn’t matter,” Keiser said. “As long as I have anything to do with it, Longtown won’t die.”

Largely because of Keiser’s efforts, the National Park Service, the National Register of Historic Places and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center have recognized Longtown as a place noteworthy for its early embrace of racial integration and educational opportunities for blacks. But the town’s institutions are in peril.

Longtown’s former school, the Union Literary Institute, founded in 1845, has a largely forgotten history as one of the nation’s first integrated establishments of higher education. Notable alumni include the first black man to serve in the U.S. Senate, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi. The school, which closed in 1914, fell into disrepair and until recently was used to store farm equipment.

The original Clemens farmstead is in better shape; the two-story brick farmhouse, built around 1850, still has its original fixtures and woodwork. Although the National Park Service has dispensed $25,000 to restore the property, Keiser estimated that the project will require an additional $100,000.

George Clemens and wife

So Keiser has hit the road to appeal for money. He’s been drawing big crowds to area libraries with his presentation about the racial harmony of Longtown and the desperate need to preserve it.

“I don’t think the public was aware this was here,” Keiser said. “Black history is not talked about a lot in general, and I think [the fact] that we have that kind of history means something to a lot of people.”

The racial harmony of Longtown is the legacy of Clemens, who found his way here in 1818 and purchased 390 acres — probably with the aid of abolitionist Quakers, sympathetic Native Americans and, by some accounts, his former owner in Rockingham County, Va.

Clemens was of a mixed-race ancestry — black,white and Native American. So was his wife, Sophia. They served as a beacon to other integrationists, as well as runaway and freed slaves looking for succor and education during and after the Civil War.

The couple became conductors for the Underground Railroad and — while the rest of the nation endured Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws — built a mixed-race town that numbered close to 1,000 people at its peak in the 1880s.

But Longtown began to falter after World War II, when residents were forced to seek help from bankers to modernize their farms.

“When we began to need machinery and bank loans to expand and grow and become competitive, that’s when there was trouble,” said Carl Westmoreland, a senior historian with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center who has visited Longtown.

“Banks would not help black farmers purchase new equipment. In Longtown, people gradually had to go to industrial centers for jobs. And if you are not part of the day-to-day energy of the community, it begins to decline.”

Today, only a handful of families remain. But Longtown lasted longer than other integrated rural villages once scattered across the Ohio plains.

Clemens Home, now Abandoned

“Because Longtown’s population was so much larger than others like it, it took longer for it to whittle down,” said Roane Smothers, a distant cousin of Keiser’s and an active Longtown preservationist.

“And because Longtown was so much larger, more structures have survived,” Smothers said. “As these other communities faded away, white folks bought the land and structures, and many times all that was left was the church.”

A junior majoring in international studies at nearby Wright State University, Keiser seems an unlikely savior for this blink of a town. Unfailingly polite, possessing a bright white smile, Keiser looks as Caucasian as the rest of Darke County, which was 97.7 percent white at the last census.

But Keiser doesn’t consider himself white. Nor does he consider himself black. Instead he calls himself by the dated and, to some, offensive term “colored.”

“I know who I am and what I am. I may look white, my appearance is white, but my insides are not. I know I am not white,” Keiser said. He makes it a point to tell anyone who will listen about his black ancestry. “I tell everyone about it, whether they want to hear it or not. I am so proud of it.”

The issue of race has long perplexed America. In the past year, the racial identities of high-profile black activists such as former Spokane NAACP chairman Rachel Dolezal and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King have come under scrutiny. If birth certificates tell the story, both Dolezal and King are Caucasians trying to pass as black.

From the perspective of his own racial heritage, Keiser finds them “pretty cool. You don’t hear of many white people wanting to be black,” he said.

Alisann Clemens Smookler with Daughters

Not many people anywhere these days want to be called “colored.” But it’s common in Longtown.

Take Edith Perkins, 75, who also looks white. For 30 years, she worked in human resources at Alcoa in nearby Richmond, Ind., where prejudice surfaced as soon as people learned she was from Longtown.

“I was never really accepted by the whites, who viewed me as black. Nor was I really accepted by the blacks, who viewed me as white,” Perkins said. “So I ate lunch by myself for 30 years.”

Patricia Hope, 82, has snow-white hair and a fair complexion and also identifies as “colored.” She said her family has a long mixed-race lineage in Longtown.

“That’s why we worship in this church, to keep our little crossroads alive,” Hope said, referring to the Bethel Long Wesleyan Church, which still holds services every Sunday. This Sunday, the church will celebrate its 159th annual homecoming with a potluck and picnic. Every year, the event becomes larger, as former residents come back to reconnect with their heritage.

“This place is all we know,” Hope said.

Her husband, Thomas, died in 2013. One by one, the repositories of Longtown’s legacy and its stories are passing to the grave. Keiser grew up steeped in the town’s oral history, stories passed down from his great-grandfather, Maze Clemens.

“He was the keeper of Longtown’s history, and my biggest hope is to make him proud by doing the same,” Keiser said.

While Longtown itself was a haven, a refuge from prejudice, sometimes biases from the outside world would creep in. The Ku Klux Klan would visit periodically. Keiser said his great-great-great-great-grandfather was murdered by the Klan. As recently as 2003, racist notes were left on the door of the church, Keiser said. In nearby Hollansburg, Ohio, Confederate flags flutter casually from many front porches.

“If the rest of the world got along as well as we do here in Longtown, there wouldn’t be problems,” said James Jett, 90. His dark skin, smooth despite his age, contrasts with his wife Brenda’s much lighter complexion.

Jett grew wistful remembering Longtown’s heyday, pointing to cornfields that were once filled with houses. And he remembers the Tigers, the town’s semi-professional baseball team, which sent many players to the Negro leagues. The Tigers’ appearance often confounded opponents.

“The Tigers showed up to play a team in Indiana, and they said, ‘Where’s the black team?’ And they responded, ‘We are the black team,’ ” laughed Brenda Jett, who declined to give her age.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in The Post-Racial Life

 

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Of Melungeons and Other Historical Mysteries

Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee, c. 1920s

Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee, c. 1920s

When Dr. Thomas Walker and Daniel Boone first explored what they would name the Cumberland Gap, the pass which allowed western expansion by the colonists in the Mid-Atlantic region in 1750 – they found a group of folks living in the area who were not Native Americans. They spoke English, and by appearances were neither white, black, or Native American. They became known as Melungeons, partially based on an early statement by one of the group that they were “Portugee”.

Theories have abounded as to how thee folks got there, and from where they came from. The most romantic of which claimed that they were descendants of survivors of the “Lost Colony” and Virginia Dare on Roanoke Island near the border of Virginia and North Carolina who mysteriously disappeared in 1586/7. Others have it they were the descendants of Portugese sailors and Turkish slaves who had been shipwrecked along the Barrier Islands protecting the Carolina and Virginia coasts during the 15th or 16th Century. Still another had them as descendents of slaves originating from the first Spanish Colony located on the Virginia/North Carolina Coast founded by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526, which was destroyed by a slave revolt.

None of these historical theories was true.

Another long standing mystery is what happened to the initial African slaves brought to Virginia in 1619. Because there were no slave laws in Virgina at that time – they were purchased as Indentured Servants. Serving of a period of years to pay back the cost of their voyage – or “purchase” cost…

After which they became free, along with the hundreds of thousands of white Europeans who had been brought to the Colonies as Indentured Servants typically to pay off their debts. Permanent black slavery wasnt legally institutionalized in Virginia until about 1670, when a number of “Slave Codes” were ratified in response to several slave revolts, and complaints of slave owners about the economic cost of having to free their slaves.  So what happened in the intervening period to these black folks who were brought to America – served as Indentured labor and paid off their debt to be free? The commonly accepted story is that they intermarried with Native Americas – which is only partially true.

Laws against miscegenation between black and white were codified about 1660 in Virginia. The issue was in large part that by treaty (with Native Americans) and law – the status of a couple’s children, slave or free – was based on the status of the Mother. Thus if an African male slave married and had children with a white female Indentured Servant – any resulting children were freedmen. This posed an economic conundrum for Virginia slave holders, and a loss of valuable property in the form of new slaves. Thus we start to see laws being put into place to prevent this.

Unions between black and white was far more common than many historians would have you believe – and not just the result of the slave Master raping their slave women. By some calculations, supported by DNA tests – about 30% of what is now considered the white population of the US, whose families lived in slave states before the Civil War have black Sub-Saharan ancestry. The result of these marriages was the establishment of large bi- and tri- racial communities in Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Louisiana. The groundbreaking work of Professor Paul Heinegg, of the University of Virginia “Free  African American Families of Virginia and North Carolina” and which has been expanded to now include Maryland, Delaware, and other states  – found that the genesis of most Free African American families before the Civil War in Virginia and North Carolina was the result of these unions between black males and white women. If you will recall, Thomas Jefferson kept his offspring from Sally Hemmings in slavery.

Unions between black slaves and white indentured servants were not rare – a situation creating the need (at least from the slave owners viewpoint) for laws prohibiting such unions. Which leaves the question – where did these families, established before the permanent slave laws,  go after finishing their indenture?

Part of my own family were what is called”Atlantic Creoles” (descendants of a white Sea Captain and an “Indian” woman who moved to Montgomery County  from what is now the Norfolk/Newport News area in 1719) whose children migrated from Montgomery County, Virginia on the lower Rappahannock River to an area near the Cumberland Gap on what is now the Virginia – West Virginia border to escape re-enslavement. They would fight a nearly 50 year legal battle in the Courts to retain their freedom. There was already a thriving black (or tri-racial) community there. What they did was to follow the path after the American Revolution of many European-American settlers and move west to the “frontier”, forming stable communities along the Virginia -West Virginia border.

Indeed there is evidence through letters that Confederate troops stayed out of certain counties in Virginia and North Carolina because the majority of the residents were freedmen who took a dim view of Confederates and would shoot any Confederate who wandered into the wrong territory. I have more then anecdotal evidence that being a slave catcher wandering onto some of those counties was a terminal profession. You can track some of that looking at General Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah – looking at where they DIDN’T fight the Rebs.

My Dad, who was a Historian always claimed that the Melungeons of the region were actually the descendants of the first Africans brought to America who had intermarried with white Indentured Servants and had served out their indenture and moved to the remote area to escape persecution.

Turns out he was right. He referred to these folks as “cousins” – although I never figured out why, or have proven any direct family relationship with any of the 40 or so Melungeon families. He was also good friends with one of the Goins family descendants.

Melungeon history researchers at various times have claimed that several famous people were descendants of Melungeons, including Elvis Presley, Ava Gardner, and Abraham Lincoln. That is in all likleyhood wishful thinking – as I have never heard on any evidence to back such claims. The truth of which would be explosive.

Melungeon DNA Study Reveals Ancestry, Upsets ‘A Whole Lot Of People’

For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2012 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life

 

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