DARKE COUNTY — An historic marker was dedicated Sunday near the intersection of routes East 600 South and South 850 East, just over the state line between Ohio and Indiana, commemorating the former location of the Union Literary Institute, one of the first institutions of higher learning in the U.S. to offer enrollment to students regardless of race or gender. The Institute was part of the community of Longtown, an African American settlement that once straddled the line between Darke County and neighboring Randolph County, Indiana.
The Institute was what was known as a manual labor school, according to Roane Smothers, president of the Union Literary Institute Preservation Society. This meant that, in place of tuition, students who attended the school had to work and tend the land on which the school was built. The Institute offered college preparatory classes in subjects such as geography, trigonometry, and English. It was also one of the few manual labor schools to teach courses in agriculture.
“Unlike schools founded by African Americans for African Americans,” Smothers said, “or white-run schools which admitted African American students, the Union Institute had a mixed-race board of directors, and admitted black, white, Native American, and female students.” Some of the school’s board members were also conductors along the Underground Railroad.
The school originally resided within a two-story log cabin when it was founded in 1845; 15 years later this was replaced by a two-story brick building; sometime after that, the school was closed and the property sold to farmers. The land was donated to the preservation society many years later.
Alumni of the school went on to have a big impact on U.S. history, according to Smothers, including Hiram Reveles, the first African American U.S. senator; John G. Mitchell, one of the founders of Wilberforce College; and Amanda Way, president of the Indiana Women’s Suffrage movement.
Tom Harshman, Vice President of the Preservation Society, said that a former mentor and local historian who helped spark his own interest in history, Russell Yates, challenged him to pursue the placing of the historical marker before he passed away.
“He said, ‘I know I’m not going to see it in my lifetime,’” Harshman said. “But someday I’d love it if they at least put a sign out there.”
Thomas D. Hamm, a history professor at Earlham College, also spoke at the unveiling, detailing how the Quaker communities of Randolph County, and their unusually progressive stance on race relations at the time, contributed to the county, and the school’s, history. Among the Quakers’ more controversial beliefs, according to Hamm, was the view that slavery was “sinful, and contrary to the will of God.”
In addition to the placing of the historical marker, the Preservation Society is working to preserve what’s left of the original school building, utilizing a grant from the Indiana Heritage Foundation. Though they can’t presently afford to fully restore the building, they are investigating a number of options, including enclosing what’s left of the structure in a steel and glass frame.
Smothers believes it’s important to preserve these physical reminders of our past, as well as just commemorating the history surrounding them.
“When people ask me why it’s so important,” Smothers said, “I always ask them, ‘What would Stonehenge be without the stones?”
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