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|12-02-02: County museum showcases past black farmers
|By JANIE SOUTHARD
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
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
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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