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12-02-02: County museum showcases past black farmers
The Daily Standard
    In the mid-1930s, black farmers owned and worked about 30,000 acres of Mercer County land purchased via Connecticut native Augustus Wattles, a white man also responsible for establishing Emlen Institute on the property now occupied by St. Charles Seminary.
    Maria Stein Heritage Museum Director Sister Regina Albers recently put together an exhibit focusing on this early black community. The exhibit is on display permanently at the museum, located in the old convent on St. Johns Road.
    "Mr. Wattles was a Quaker and a teacher of black children in Cincinnati where he lived for a time. He was interested in a better situation for black people, which is why he created the Emlen Institute, which taught them agriculture and practical skills," Albers told The Daily Standard last week at the local heritage museum, as she pointed to various information clips in the new exhibit.
    According to "A Glimpse at the Negro in American History" prepared by David F. Brown and the Library of Mercer County (circa 1975), Wattles is quoted: "In the winter of 1833-34, I providentially became acquainted with the colored population of Cincinnati and found about 4,000 totally ignorant of everything calculated to make good citizens.
    "Most of them had been slaves and shut out from every avenue of moral and mental improvement," he continued.
    He proposed that they move to the country, purchase land and learn to farm, which they agreed to do if Wattles would go with them as a teacher.
    After traveling in Canada, Michigan and Indiana looking for a suitable location, Wattles made the first purchase of land for them in 1835 in southern Mercer County where they called their community Carthagena.
    "In the 1840s some of the black people were working in Celina making bricks. The local white workers, who had already said they wouldn't do this work, changed their minds when they saw the blacks working," Albers said.
    The black brick workers had settled near Montezuma and, because they were renting log cabins there and so had contracts, the whites were stymied in their attempt to run the blacks out of town as paupers.
    Many locals lived in log cabins as well as other structures, and the heritage museum exhibit, which was researched by Mary Ann Brown and Mary Niekamp, shows photographs of some local houses thought to be built and owned by black families.
    "The typical house was a one-and-a-half frame with two rooms across and one room deep. They had steeply pitched roofs, a type usually found in the southern states, which helps us distinguish them from the German houses around here," she said indicating the appropriate photos in the display.
    According to histories of the period, Carthagena was located near the Emlen Institute and was a thriving village and an underground railroad center.
    Also on the display board are recent photos of tombstones, which Albers took in the former black community's church cemetery at the corner of U.S. 127 and Ohio 274.
    Located on a rise above U.S. 127 to the west of St. Aloysius Catholic Church, the 100 or so tombstones rest in the ground or on new cement slabs where the fallen lie where they fell. Several fields behind the cemetery, St. Charles Seminary hovers on the horizon.
    "In Marion, Butler and Granville townships there were at one time more than 600 black residents. They made their living as blacksmiths, teachers, farmers, master carpenters, shoe makers and so forth. I suppose as the younger generations grew up they moved back to bigger towns and cities. Now, of course, there are very few black people here," Albers observed.
    Black property owners began selling their farms to white neighbors in 1846, but Emlen continued to serve blacks until 1957. In 1861 the Precious Blood priests took it over.
    "It certainly appears blacks and whites coexisted peacefully here for many years," Albers concluded.


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