The Hanktown Community  

Travel with me back to the year 1833.  There are hushed whispers in the slave quarters at Roanoke .  Maser John Randolph’s death has just been announced.  Randolph, a third generation Virginian was from a family of immense privilege and a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson.  At the age of 26 he was elected to the United States Congress, eventually to the Senate and was sent to Russia as an Ambassador under the administration of President John Quincy Adams.  

His landed estate included more than 8,000 acres. From his father, Randolph inherited nearly 400 slaves.  He neither bought nor sold a slave during his lifetime.  He developed a unique system of management by designating certain tracts of his land to be worked by the same slaves rather than the common practice of all field hands working in unison under an overseer.  He also personally taught many of his slaves to read and write, an unheard of practice on other plantations.  Furthermore, his treatment of the slaves was humane in that he had no bodily harm inflicted upon them.  Economically he could not maintain his land without slave labor, but it was a practice that he deplored and one that he frequently spoke against.   

As reported in the Baltimore Visiter, a few years before his death, Randolph was walking along Pennsylvania Avenue on his way to the Congress and happened to meet Edward Stabler, a Friends minister.  As they were talking, a wagon loaded with black women and children followed by twenty to thirty men all handcuffed and chained together, passed by.  Stabler remarked “This is indeed a shocking spectacle to be exhibited here, almost under the shadow of the Capitol of the United States .  We profess to be advocates of equal rights and claim to be the first people in the world and yet we here see before us a number of our fellow men, without having committed any breach of the laws, or being charged with any offence whatever, chained like condemned criminals and driven under the very eyes of the national legislature now in session, like beasts to market.  The nations of Europe have their several ministers and representatives here who will witness this scene and who probably will make it known to their respective governments.  What must people of other nations think of us when they will learn that in the face of all our boasting professions about liberty, we permit the most odious tyranny and cruel oppression to be openly practiced upon millions of our people with impunity.”  After a moment of reflection Randolph replied: “Sir, I do not care what Europe or what the people of any other county may think or say of us, this is of no consequence and I wholly disregard it.  But when I reflect upon what God Almighty may think of us, I confess to that I tremble for my country.”  

In trying to set John Randolph’s affairs in order, three Wills were discovered, each giving freedom to his slaves.  Thirteen years of legal battle followed until it was determined that the first will of 1821 was valid.  In it he wrote, “I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have every owned one.”  He further devised $30,000 for the purchase of land in some other state and for their journey.  His close friend, Judge William Leigh was to oversee both.   

One can only imagine the excitement generated in the slave quarters.  Judge Leigh commissioned Samuel Jay, a member of the local West Branch Society of Friends to purchase land here in Ohio .  There already being a colony of black folks in Mercer County , it was decided to purchase land there, which totaled between two and three thousand acres in the Celina area.  The Charlotte County , Virginia court manumitted the Randolph Slave on May 4th 1846.  All was readied and the 383 freed slaves commenced their journey under the protective care of Mr. Cardwell and an armed guard unit to the Ohio River where their freedom was assured and there boarded a boat to Cincinnati .  From there, they boarded four barges on the Miami-Erie Canal heading north.  Arriving in Dayton , a local newspaper printed the following, “They are a fine looking company of blacks.  Some of them regretted being compelled to leave Virginia , where they would much rather have remained, and anticipated an unfavorable reception in Mercer County .  Since the arrangements for settling the Randolph blacks in that county have been in progress, a great deal of opposition has been manifested by the citizens, and meetings have been held in the various parts, at which resolutions were passed to take measures to prevent these Negroes from coming into the area.  We have no idea that they will be permitted to remain in Mercer County .”  

Upon their landing at New Bremen on July 12th, 1846, the former slaves disembarked and made camp while Cardwell met with locals to plea for a peaceful resolution to the new settlement.  By that evening, a mob of fully armed white folks surrounded the camp.  Their leader read a resolution, “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 the county to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted.”  They were not totally surprised as they had felt pockets of intolerance and racism all along their long journey into an unfamiliar land. Cardwell was himself taken into custody.  He was forced the next day to pay for passage on the barges, taking his charges south again returning to Sidney , then Piqua and finally Troy , leaving passengers at each stop.  I quote from a contemporary article published in the Piqua Register saying “about 1/3 of them we understand remained at Sidney intending to scatter and find homes wherever they can.  The necessity which now separates them over the whole country, connected as they are by the ties of kindred, being as it were but one family, is a hard one, but is probably the best thing that can be done.”  And inter family connected they were, having lived as a closed community with the Randolph ’s for more than sixty years.  The eldest to be given her freedom was the one hundred year old granny Hannah.  

About ninety or a quarter of the freed slaves were placed under the protective care of members of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in western Union Township whose membership was made up largely of former members of the antislavery meeting of the Society of Friends.  Trustees Andrew Stephens and Rev. Elijah Coate purchased 118 acres of land a quarter mile west of their meeting house where forty families bearing the names of Brown, Cloy, Cole, Cox, Giffon, Gillard, Green, Harris, Jefferson, Johnson, Moton, Thomas, Tucker, White and Young were settled.  The settlement was named Hanktown in honor of an early Union Township surveyor, Thomas Hanks. An agricultural community with some working out as day laborers, the residents built a log Baptist meeting house under the leadership of Rev. Henderson Cole and buried their dead in the surrounding cemetery.  The log building was later replaced by a frame one which was dismantled in 1921.  By tradition, the second house to the east of the cemetery was the schoolmaster’s home and the next brick home to the east was the special school district number 15.  These are the only original buildings remaining today in Hanktown.  

The late Jim Hall related to me that while laying the Indiana , Bloomington & Western Rail-Road tracks near Hanktown in 1882, one of the residents asked the workers for a rail tie.  He was told that if he could lift it by himself, it was his.  To the astonishment of the men, he not only lifted the tie, but carried it home with him.  Jim said that a number of the men from this community were of superior strength which this fete demonstrates. My mentor, the late Mary Helen Pemberton of West Milton is the person who first acquainted me with the Hanktown community.  One of the freed slave women not only was a domestic for, but also lived part time with Mary Helen’s grandmother.  

A record book kept by Mary Helen’s grandfather, Quaker minister Enos Pemberton, records a large number of marriages and funerals that he conducted for the residents of Hanktown and its sister community Marshalltown in Newton Township.  

Seven young men from this community who volunteered for military duty during the War Between the States are buried at Hanktown.  Harrison Gillard, Israel White, Silas White & Spencer White all served in the famous 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, Hillery White in the 5th United States Colored Infantry, Julius Young with the 5th United States Heavy Artillery & James Gillard whose unit is undetermined there being 5 of the same name in black units.  Of these, Harrison Gillard, Hillery White who was killed in action, Silas White and Julius Young were buried near Ludlow Creek along the northern part of the Hanktown tract.  As a Boy Scout project some years ago, their markers were moved to the Hanktown Cemetery for safe keeping.  Tombstones for the remaining 3 are no longer there but burials are mentioned in the military file kept in the Miami County Recorders Office.  While buried elsewhere, the community also gave forth Corporal Beverly Harris, Nicholas Johnson, Peter Jones, Rev. Joseph Moton and Benjamin Williams in that great conflict freeing our county from slavery.  

But what of the land in Mercer County ?  Judge Leigh placed his trust in barrister Joseph Plunkett as power of attorney, but this proved to be a wrong choice.  Just 5 months after the Randolph Slaves arrival, he began selling the lands bought for them.  The scandalous Plunkett forged Judge Leigh’s signature on deeds over the next six years and in the end all was sold and the monies there from pocketed.  In 1907, Rev. Joe Moton now of Troy and York Rial, a son of slaves, from Rossville in Shelby County, filed a lawsuit in Mercer County on behalf of the Randolph slave community.  Sought was the return of their land or the equivalent in cash.  Twenty-seven filings over the period of 10 years went before the Mercer County Court, the Ohio Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court.  This too failed as the court system denied their rightful claim to the land. 

 Due to limited opportunity, the residents of Hanktown began moving to Troy and other more populated areas leaving the community nearly depleted by 1900.  The last to reside in the township was the much loved and respected Ky Jefferson who stayed with a number of white folks, working for his room and board.   His was the last burial in the Hanktown Cemetery in 1933.  The story of the freed Randolph Slaves is a true American saga, much of which is veiled in the shadows of time.  

Speech written and presented by Gale Honeyman at the Miami County , Union Township and West Milton Bicentennial held October 21, 2007 at the Ohio Centennial Barn of Fred and Brenda Copeland, 4080 State Route 48, West Milton , Ohio .  A slight correction to this speech was learned from the one given by Margaret Vaughn.  John Randolph did in his lifetime purchase one slave who was being abused by his master.

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