Greene County celebrates Black history month with online archives exhibit

Some of the most prominent African American figures in the area settled in Greene County.

Wheeling Gaunt, who was born a slave in Kentucky, came to Yellow Springs around 1860. Gaunt bought his freedom and his family’s freedom.

Gaunt owned a lot of real estate in the Yellow Springs area and near Xenia. He left part of his estate to Wilberforce University on his death. He also left some of the land he owned in Yellow Springs to the village of Yellow Springs when he died with the stipulation that Yellow Springs was to rent the land out and the rent collected on the land was to be used each year at Christmas time to purchase flour for the local widows regardless of their ethnicity.

“He wanted to make sure that they were taken care of. That tradition actually still continues today,” said Greene County Archives records manager and archivist Robin Heise. “They’ve expanded it today to add sugar, and it also covers widowers in addition to widows, so it’s a really cool tradition that still continues. He was a genius. Real estate was his thing. And he was able to become a very, very influential and prominent man here in Greene County.”

People can learn more about Greene County Black history thanks to a virtual exhibit put together by the county.

The exhibit opened for in-person visits in 2019, but the county decided to bring it back virtually because the archives can only be open for one person at a time due to COVID restrictions. A former Greene County Archives intern, Amy Czubak, did the research and put the exhibit together.

“Because it’s Black history month and it was such a good exhibit, we thought we would highlight it once again,” Heise said. “The whole idea behind this exhibit is to celebrate Black history in Greene County and the people who really were instrumental in settling around Wilberforce, creating Wilberforce University and Greene County really played a large role.”

Also this month, on Feb. 24 the archives will make a presentation via Zoom called “Finding Freedom in Greene County.”

Before Wilberforce University was an educational institution, the campus was home to a resort and inn called Tawawa Springs. Many southern plantation owners would bring their female slaves to Tawawa in the summers for a “vacation,” Heise said.

“I’m using ‘vacation’ in quotes because they were still in bondage. They had a little more freedom at Tawawa Springs, they got to get away from the plantations in the south, but they still had to go back at the end of their ‘vacation’ period,” she said. “The reason that this is kind of the birth of Wilberforce is that a lot of these plantation owners, because they had children with these enslaved women they realized, at some point, they wanted something better for their children. And they knew if they stayed in the south, they wouldn’t be able to get an education. And so, Wilberforce kind of grew out of that. It started as a place for these plantation owners to send their children to get an education.”

Tawawa Springs closed in 1855. Wilberforce opened in 1856.

Heise said some of the most valuable records that Greene County has are emancipation or freedom records that were kept in the county deed office.

“In my mind, these are the most historically valuable records that we hold,” Heise said. “As you move along in them, they get more complex and descriptive. They detail families that moved to Greene County from the south, their age, their complexion, any scars... This is especially important if you’re Black and working on your family genealogy. You can get an idea of where your family had been enslaved in the south, which would help you to do additional research.”

These emancipation records date back to the early 1800s. Many of them are available to view in the online exhibit. The county has also digitized them and put the records on their website.

“These records start to help create identities for these people,” Heise said, “because they were stripped of their identities. These documents help show how they got to freedom.”

In 1804, the state passed a series of laws called “Ohio Black Laws” that mandated Black people coming to settle in Ohio had to bring papers to the courthouse that showed they were either born free or had been set free. They also had to bring a white, male property owner with them and had to put up a $500 bond to essentially ensure they would be on good behavior or wouldn’t be a burden on the county.

These records were kept in the county deed office and the Black person had to carry a copy of the record with them as identification, Heise said.

Early African American Figures in Greene County

One record in the exhibit reads: “I John G. Cocks, late of the City of New Orleans- now present as above in the county of Greene State of Ohio for and inconsideration of the sum of one dollar to me in hand and actuated from feelings of humanity have this day set free and by these presents both set free emancipate liberate and forever release from slavery and servitude, my slave boy, Delemicus.”

Greene County has one family’s identification papers that were never picked up. Heise said the papers belonged to the Piper family. Phillip Piper brought a slave, Nelly, to Ohio to be freed. The two had children together and he wanted to stay with his family and get married to Nelly.

“This is the only instance of this we know of this in Greene County. This is the only instance where the man wanted to stay with his family and be a husband and father,” Heise said. “He sold his plantation and wanted to stay here with Nelly and his family.”

Heise said the family went to Pennsylvania to get married, because biracial marriage was illegal in Ohio at the time, then came home to Wilberforce.

“I like to think that we still have both copies of the papers today because they were on their way to Pennsylvania and forgot to come pick them up,” Heise said. “But that is impossible to know.”

Most of the people who came up from the south settled around Wilberforce. The 1850 Census shows that Xenia had the highest population on Blacks within Greene County. The archives say they may have settled there because of their knowledge of Tawawa Springs.

Benjamin Arnett played a huge role in Wilberforce history, Heise said. Arnett served in the Ohio House of Representatives and led the successful effort to repeal the state’s remaining “Black Laws.” He was a bishop in the AME church and lived at Wilberforce. One of Phillip and Nelly Piper’s children married Arnett.

Hallie Q. Brown was born to former slaves. Her father bought their freedom and they moved to Greene County. Brown went to Wilberforce, graduated and began teaching all over the U.S.

“She was dedicated to the advancement of African Americans,” Heise said. “She even at one point went overseas and spoke with the Queen of England. She would travel around the world and give these wonderful speeches and talks. For that time period, to think that she as a woman, as a Black woman, was able to do these things is incredible.”

When Xenia had an opera house, Brown gave many talks there, Heise said.

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