GREENVILLE — A Darke County native spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people Sunday, discussing a little-known, but fondly remembered, settlement in the county.
Connor Keiser, a recent Wright State University graduate, was the featured speaker at the Garst Museum’s Speakers Series, where he discussed the Longtown, one of Ohio’s earliest mixed race settlements. Keiser is the great-great-great-great-great grandson of James Clemens, a freed slave from Rockingham County, Virginia.
“We have African-American history right here in Darke County, some are familiar, some are not, so that’s what I’m here to share with you,” said Keiser. “I’m a very proud descendant of the settlement.”
Clemens settled in Longtown in 1818, bringing with him his wife, Sophia Sellers, and their five children. Over time, the settlement attracted not only black settlers, but those of Native American and European heritage. At its peak, the town was home to 900 residents.
But Longtown was more than a place to live, it was a refuge. Clemens, along with others, worked with Levi Coffin in nearby Fountain City, Indiana, to help former slaves make their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
When the Civil War came, more than 80 men from the settlement enlisted in the Union Army. Two of these enlistees served in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, a unit notably featured in the film Glory. Forty of these soldiers are buried in Longtown cemeteries, although some of their grave markers have deteriorated or gone missing.
The settlement also saw the establishment of the Union Literary Institute in 1845, remarkable for its time as accepting both men and women of all races. U.S. Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi, the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate, was an alum of the school.
The Institute as well as the James and Sophia Clemens Farmstead are both listed on the United States Registry of Historical Places.
“Although little remains today, it was there that history was made — African-American history, Darke County history, and for some of us, family history,” Keiser said.
Keiser and other descendants continue to work preserving the remains and the history of the settlement for future generations. For further information, go to the Remembering Freedom: James Clemens and the Longtown Settlement Facebook page.