Monday, September 28, 2015

Rural Ohio town founded by freed slave as an integrated community is losing its racial identity

A rural progressive western Ohio town that was racially integrated ahead of its time is in danger of losing that history, as the aging black population is dying and white residents are buying the property, Kevin Williams reports for The Washington Post. Longtown, Ohio, was founded by James Clemens, a freed Virginia slave of black, white and Native American ancestry who became a became prosperous farmer in Ohio. (Wikipedia map: Darke County, Ohio)

"Clemens’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson is working to save his family’s heritage," Williams writes. "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." Keiser is like many current residents, who appear to be white but are actually of mixed race. Keiser prefers to call himself "colored." He told Williams, “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.”

"So Keiser has hit the road to appeal for money," Williams writes. "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." He told Williams, “I don’t think the public was aware this was here. 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.”

Clemens and his wife Sophia, who was also mixed race, "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," Williams writes. They served as conductors for the Underground Railroad and "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. Today, only a handful of families remain." The latest census showed that Darke County was 97.7 percent white. (Read more)

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