DARKE COUNTY — Founded two centuries ago in Darke County by a freed slave, Longtown became an island of tolerance in a sea of intolerance, a place where the races mingled, intermarried and generally just got along.
In 2015, with that unique history in danger, Longtown gained the attention of the Washington Post. “Amid the corn and soybean fields of western Ohio lies a progressive crossroads where black and white isn’t black and white, where the concept of race has been turned upside down, where interracial marriages have been the norm for nearly two centuries. The heavy boots of Jim Crow have never walked here,” the Post wrote on Sept. 26, 2015, adding that “Longtown was a community far ahead of its time, a bold experiment in integration.”
In many ways, as Donald M. Royer and Harry W. Leavell pointed out in their study of the settlement, Longtown already was what the abolitionists of the Freedman’s Bureau hoped to create for former slaves in the wake of the Civil War in 1865. In such a place, Royer and Leavell wrote, every freed slave would “have the opportunity to own land so that they might have a piece of property where they could raise their families in security and freedom; produce their own crops and send their children to schools provided for them.”
While the vision of the abolitionists never fully materialized, Longtown survived and thrived. “Beginning in 1822,” Royer and Leavell noted, “the Longtown settlers became the forerunners of a class of stable, land-owning farmers, craftsmen, skilled workers and professionals with the kind of pride, self-respect, perseverance, ambition and achievement that any American community would be proud to have in their midst.”
Although the early settlers bore names like Clemens, Bass, Epps and Hurd, the community today bears the name of a family that came much later. The name of Longtown was derived from the Long family who arrived in 1884 after James Long bought a blacksmith shop sight unseen, “and on arrival discovered they were in a ‘colored’ community.” Undeterred, James and Sarah Long, who were white, stayed and soon became esteemed members of what was then known as the Greenville Settlement. So, when a name was needed for the new post office, the community settled on Long. “The name Greenville Settlement gave way to Longtown, or more properly ‘Long,’” Royer and Leavell wrote.
More than six decades before the Longs arrived, records show that James Clemens was the first free black man to purchase land in German Township, as Liberty Township was known prior to World War I.
“The racial harmony of Longtown is the legacy of Clemens, who found his way here in 1818 and purchased 390 acres — probably with the aid of abolitionist Quakers, sympathetic Native Americans and, by some accounts, his former owner in Rockingham County, Va.,” according to the Post article. “Clemens was of mixed-race ancestry – black, white and Native American. So was his wife, Sophia. They served as a beacon to other integrationists, as well as runaway and freed slaves looking for succor and education during and after the Civil War.”
In May 1846, with the help of anti-slavery Quakers from nearby Indiana, members of the settlement opened the Union Literary Institute in a two-story log house. Within a few years a dormitory was built to accommodate boarding students. The institute, also known as the Darke County Seminary, reached a peak enrollment of 90 students in one year before closing in 1910 because of dwindling enrollment.
Among those who attended the school were Hiram Revels, who, in 1870, became the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Congress, representing Mississippi, and James Sidney Hinton, the first African-American to hold state office in Indiana.
James and Sophia Clemens, the Post added, “became conductors for the Underground Railroad and — while the rest of the nation endured Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws — built a mixed-race town that numbered close to 1,000 people at its peak in the 1880s.”
According to the National Parks Service website, “Escaped slaves would stay in Longtown for a time, attending the Union Literary Institute before continuing their flight to Canada. … At least on one occasion, people looking for escaped slaves entered the settlement.”
By the middle of the 20th century, the settlement’s population had dwindled to about 500 and, by 1980, the population was down to about 175. “One gets the impression on driving around Longtown Settlement today that there is ‘no there, there.’ There is no center. One finds a series of farms in the two square mile area, the Bass and Clemens cemeteries, abandoned buildings, along with some neatly maintained farmsteads,” Royer and Leavell wrote in their study.
“As of 1994 most of the descendants of Longtown’s original settlers have left home for the ‘greener pastures’ of towns and cities throughout the Midwest with fairly heavy concentrations in Richmond, Indiana, and Dayton, Ohio. Of the twenty-five or so families who remain in the area, a few of them attend the one remaining church, the Bethel Wesleyan at the intersection of Tampico and Stingley roads in the heart of what once was a bustling crossroads neighborhood with blacksmith shops, a barber shop, the A.M.E. church, the Masonic Lodge, the post office and public school.”
Longtown, according to the Post article, “began to falter after World War II, when residents were forced to seek help from bankers to modernize their farms.”
And the banks, Carl Westmoreland of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center told the Post, would not help the farmers of Longtown. “In Longtown, people gradually had to go to industrial centers for jobs,” he said. “And if you are not part of the day-to-day energy of the community it begins to decline.”
Although only a handful of families remain in Longtown, the community, with a larger population, lasted longer than other “integrated rural villages once scattered across the Ohio plains,” according to the Post.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.