GREENVILLE — Thanks to a state grant from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, the restoration project by the Union Literary Institute Preservation Society of the James and Sophia Clemens historical farmstead will now be able to be completed. The grant to restore the property and establish a museum there totals $90,000.
The site, located at 467 Stingley Road, Palestine, was named on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 as a significant historical site relating to black heritage and the Underground Railroad.
The Clemens farmstead is one of the few remaining structures of the historic village of Longtown, also known as the Greenville Negro Settlement.
James Clemens founded the settlement, and the house currently under restoration is believed to have been built between 1822 and 1857. Clemens donated the land for the Wesleyan Church and established a cemetery for the community.
Clemens was the first free black man to purchase land in German Township.
Longtown was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The settlement was also years ahead of its time as a fully racially integrated community. According to W. E. B. Dubois, Longtown became a haven for interracial couples, and it was one of only two communities in Ohio to be considered tri-racial: with residents of European, African-American and Native American ancestry.
James and Sophia Clemens came from Rockingham County, Virginia, to settle in Darke County in 1818, where they soon became prosperous farmers. Their success encouraged other former slaves to migrate to the area, where the community of Longtown was founded.
The settlement became a center for the Underground Railroad, a key site on the journey for escaped slaves seeking their freedom.
The community, which extended over the Indiana border, also became home to a Quaker school, called the Union Literary Institute. Escaped slaves would often stay in the community for a time, attending school there, before continuing on to Canada.
The height of Longtown’s population was around 900 people in the 1940s. Many descendants live in the Muncie, Richmond, Indianapolis and Dayton areas.
One of those descendants, Roane D. Smothers, of Dayton, spearheaded the effort to get the Clemens homestead named to the National Register of Historic Places. Smothers is vice president of the Union Literary Institute Preservation Society. He is descended from Longtown’s Bass family.
The planned renovations will restore the dwelling to a safe and habitable status, from the tin roof to the concrete footings. Work scheduled for 2016 includes establishment of electric service; repair and reconstruction of doors and window fixtures; gutters and downspouts; and exterior painting. The estimated total cost of renovations is nearly $111,000, so the $90,000 grant will go a long way toward getting that work completed.
The four-acre site includes a two-story brick I-House with Greek Revival details and a mid-19th-Century English barn. The renovations will include multiple exhibit areas within the house, office space for the museum and public restroom installation.
Only five houses, three schools and one church remain of the original Longtown settlement that extended over nearly 4,000 acres in total.