The Randolph Freedpeople

The Randolph Freedpeople

In the late spring of 1833, 400 people were freed from slavery, but only in writing. The former slaves of John Randolph would have to wait thirteen years for their freedom. Randolph, of the Roanoke Plantation in Virginia, freed his slaves in his will. His family contested his will and fought for over a decade to keep the former slaves as their property.

“I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one.”

Excerpt from 1819 draft of John Randolph’s will.

In 1846, Judge William Leigh, lawyer Francis Scot Key, and Bishop Meade were able to enforce the will, freeing 383 people from bondage. Upon executing the will, Leigh purchased 3,200 acres of land in Mercer County, Ohio, for $6,000. He also set up transportation for the freed people to their new home. Besides their freedom, all former slaves older than 40 were to receive ten acres of land. The land was near the Black settlement of Carthagena, founded in 1840. The founder of Carthagena was a Black man named Charles Moore, who owned 160 acres of land. 

Historical postcard of the Miami Erie Canal. Along the left bank of the canal is a street, houses and industrial buildings. A small boat sits on the canal and the right bank is lined with trees.

The freed people left their home in Virginia to make their way to Ohio on June 10, 1846. They traveled by foot, arriving in Cincinnati on July 1. They took Miami Erie Canal for the next leg of their journey. By the time they had made it to Mercer County, their new home’s site, word had spread among the White locals. The town had passed a resolution, which in part read, “Resolved. That we will not live among Negroes, as we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist the settlement of blacks and mulattoes in this country to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted.” When the Virginians arrived in Mercery county, a mob of angry, armed white residents met them. They forced the freed people back onto the canal, where they headed south. 

Denied their land and inheritance, the Randolph Freedpeople settled in small towns along the canal. Many of them lived in Shelby and Miami County. They built communities in Rumley (Shelby County) and Rossville, Hanktown, and Marshall Town (Miami County). 

In November of 2018, the exhibit, Freed Will: The Randolph Freedpeople From Slavery to Settlement, was on display at the Piqua Public Library. The Ohio History Connection and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center created this traveling exhibit. 

The exhibit showed that the Freedpeoples’ story did not end in tragedy. They survived and made lives in this area of Ohio. 

Historical black and white photograph of a group of thirty Black people at a gathering.

Reunion of Randolph Freedpeople and their descendants at the Shelby County, Ohio Fairgrounds


The show included nineteen panels and several display cases. Some exhibit objects had an ornate family bible, a Mills Brothers guitar, and a 16th-century manilla bracelet. 

The photos and artifacts were from Helen Gilmore. Gilmore, a Randolph descendant from William and York Rial, founded the Springcreek Rossville Historic House Museum. She and her husband bequeathed the museum’s contents to the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center. Gilmore founded the Springcreek Historical Society and ran the Rossville Historic House Museum. She collected photos and stories of Randolph descendants until her death.

To read more about the Randolph Freedpeople, check out these links below. 


From Ohio History Connection:


From Wright State University:


From the Shelby County Historical Society:


From the Troy Historical Society: