The Greenville Settlement was one of the earliest and most prosperous rural Black communities in the states of Indiana and Ohio. Greenville was founded in 1818 in Darke County, Ohio, by James and Sophia Clemens. By 1822, the settement extended over the state line into Randolph County, Indiana where Thornton Alexander purchased the first tract of black-owned land in the county. The community was comprised of black people with long-standing status as free, recently manumitted black people, and fugitives. By the mid 19th-century, Greenville pioneers had established an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Indiana, a Wesleyan Church in Ohio, a nationally recognized integrated manual-labor school known as the Union Literary Institute (ULI), and three cemeteries. They had also gained recognition as a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
Much of what once existed of the settlement is no longer there. The Clemens farmstead, a declining ULI building, and three cemeteries (one neglected in the middle of a white-owned farm) are what remain of the settlement. Roane Smothers, descendant and historian, asserts “when this has happened at other African American settlements, the buildings and cemeteries were demolished and the story of these African American pioneers are forgotten and buried.” However, Greenville did not suffer this fate, and that is a testament to the legacy its pioneers constructed.
Today, the descendants’ grassroots preservation work takes shape in a variety of ways: archiving historical documents and artifacts, attaining historical markers, restoring old buildings, registering buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and as an Underground Railroad site by the National Park Service, and maintaining a very active descendant-run Facebook page.
This History Harvest, which took place in September 2019, is an exciting addition to those preservation practices. Here, the descendants of Longtown (formerly Greenville) present:
- Their oral histories and family collections of historical objects
- A multi-family exhibit of the items that preserve Longtown history in its descendants’ homes
- A tour of Longtown and guide to the homecoming event at which the history harvest took place
We hope that this digital archive inspires emulation by other descendant communities, social justice initiatives, critical city planning, and further research. In 1909, after visiting Longtown, W.E.B Dubois wrote:
Throughout the United States there are numbers of communities of black folk, segregated, secluded, more or less autonomous, going their quiet way unknown of most of the surrounding world….Particularly are the Ohio Negro settlements unheard of, and yet there in Ohio and Indiana perhaps a dozen such communities, romantic in history and rich in social lessons.
His words have transcended time and space and continue to resonate in our present moment.