This story was originally published by the Ohio History Connection on Feb. 21, 2017. It is being republished here as part of a collaborative agreement.
On May 4, 1846, the Randolph People were manumitted by a court in Virginia following 13 years of litigation.
John Randolph, the former master of these slaves, had been partly to blame for the controversy. He drafted three conflicting wills, only to recant the third on his deathbed.
The first of these, written in 1819, would have granted full emancipation. The second, in 1821, made provisions for their lives beyond liberation. In his final will, he demanded that “executors may select from among my slaves a number not exceeding 100, for the use of the heir, the remainder to be sold.”
However, his physician and two others were present at the time and provided eyewitness testimony of his retraction. This would have been legally sufficient, had it not been for the protestations of John’s family.
The underlying cause for this legal battle was in many ways the bedrock of slavery itself. Freedom represented more than just a loss of workforce. It was a direct threat to the wealth of the Randolph lineage.
Enslaved people were considered property, like the 8,207 acres of productive land on Randolph’s Roanoke plantation, or his collection of thoroughbred horses. These human lives were treated as a form of currency representing white affluence.
Because their literacy was prohibited by 1740, the Randolph People did not produce diaries or manuscripts while in legal limbo. They remained on the plantation, but their daily experience is unknown.
There is no evidence that the Randolph People had knowledge of their potential manumission.
However, John had convoluted ideas of slavery, at times professing sympathy for their plight. According to the Chicago Tribune, he once claimed that the greatest speech he ever heard came from a Black mother on the auction block.
Like his cousin Thomas Jefferson, he continued to hold captive hundreds of Black people on the plantation. He would lose nothing in this gesture, as their freedom was granted only by his death.
In 1833, he called for his physician, a Quaker by the name of Dr. Joseph Parrish, to come to his bedside at the City Hotel in Philadelphia. Randolph had been on his way to Russia from Baltimore, as he was recently appointed Minister to the imperial nation.
However, he fell ill and never reached his destination. Despite Parrish’s efforts, Randolph’s health continued to decline. According to court testimony, Randolph requested emancipation for all his slaves and cried out “Remorse! Remorse!” just before he died at 11:45 a.m. on May 24, 1833.
The story continues here from the Piqua Public Library.
In the late spring of 1833, 400 people were freed from slavery, but only in writing. The former slaves of John Randolph would have to wait thirteen years for their freedom. Randolph, of the Roanoke Plantation in Virginia, freed his slaves in his will. His family contested his will and fought for over a decade to keep the former slaves as their property.
“I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one.”
Excerpt from 1819 draft of John Randolph’s will.
In 1846, Judge William Leigh, lawyer Francis Scot Key, and Bishop Meade were able to enforce the will, freeing 383 people from bondage. Upon executing the will, Leigh purchased 3,200 acres of land in Mercer County, Ohio, for $6,000.
He also set up transportation for the freed people to their new home. Besides their freedom, all former slaves older than 40 were to receive ten acres of land. The land was near the Black settlement of Carthagena, founded in 1840. The founder of Carthagena was a Black man named Charles Moore, who owned 160 acres of land.
The freed people left their home in Virginia to make their way to Ohio on June 10, 1846. They traveled by foot, arriving in Cincinnati on July 1. They took Miami Erie Canal for the next leg of their journey. By the time they had made it to Mercer County, their new home’s site, word had spread among the White locals.
The town had passed a resolution, which in part read, “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 Mulattoes in this country to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted.”
When the Virginians arrived in Mercery county, a mob of angry, armed white residents met them. They forced the freed people back onto the canal, where they headed south.
Denied their land and inheritance, the Randolph Freedpeople settled in small towns along the canal. Many of them lived in Shelby and Miami County. They built communities in Rumley (Shelby County) and Rossville, Hanktown, and Marshall Town (Miami County).
In November of 2018, the exhibit, Freed Will: The Randolph Freedpeople From Slavery to Settlement, was on display at the Piqua Public Library. The Ohio History Connection and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center created this traveling exhibit.
The exhibit showed that the Freedpeoples’ story did not end in tragedy. They survived and made lives in this area of Ohio.
The show included 19 panels and several display cases. Some exhibit objects had an ornate family bible, a Mills Brothers guitar, and a 16th-century manilla bracelet.
The photos and artifacts were from Helen Gilmore. Gilmore, a Randolph descendant from William and York Rial, founded the Springcreek Rossville Historic House Museum. She and her husband bequeathed the museum’s contents to the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.
Gilmore founded the Springcreek Historical Society and ran the Rossville Historic House Museum. She collected photos and stories of Randolph descendants until her death.