Kenyon Professor Reveals Hidden History Of African Americans In Rural Ohio

Feb 19, 2020

African American communities in rural Ohio began not long after Ohio became a state in 1803.

Kenyon College professor Ric Sheffield says many people still aren't familiar with this side of Ohio's history.

In Knox County, Ohio, the first recorded presence of an African American person was in 1808,” Sheffield says. “There have always been settlements, whether they're a handful of families, two or three families, or whether they're larger in terms of a couple hundred people.”

Sheffield says his aim is to reclaim and spread the lost history of African Americans in the state. He's scheduled to at an event called “Hidden Communities-African-Americans in Rural Ohio,” on February 19, at 7 p.m. at the Barn at Stratford in Delaware.

Sheffield says some of the early black Ohioans had purchased their freedom from enslavement, or had been freed by slave owners.

“Frequently, many of the early migrants came in the service of white people,” Sheffield says. “They were servants and drivers and laborers of a variety of sorts. They began to move into commerce and became members of the Chamber of Commerce by having their own stores, cleaning businesses or barber shops.”

A Knox County wagon team.
Credit Knox County Black History Digital Archives

Sheffield says African Americans have lived all over Ohio.

“You’ll find them in Oberlin,” Sheffield says. “You’ll find them in Gallipolis. Even actually Delaware, until Delaware began to expand so much out of Columbus. Find them in Muskingum County, the Zanesville area, Guernsey County, Cambridge."

Sheffield explains that rural black communities interacted often with their white counterparts.

“They’ve always intersected, and most rural communities, because of the small numbers, there would not be separate school houses built, as had been the case in urban areas," he says. "Intersection was the norm.”

At the same time, Ohio's early black residents faced constant barriers.

“Sadly, the challenges have always centered around racism, and that’s sort of the legacy of slavery, heritage that American society has,” Sheffield says. "And slavery of course has resulted in a sense of racial superiority and racial inferiority."

A group of Black Masons circa 1940s.
Credit Knox County Black History Digital Archives

Sheffield says black families across the state strived to improve their lives.

“They worked very hard,” Sheffield says. “They felt a particular pressure not to offend or not to mess up because of a sort of sense that this will reflect poorly on not just me or not just my family but the entire black community.”

Wednesday's event is sponsored by the Delaware County Historical Society.