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Columbus lawmaker wants justice for descendants of freed Virginia slaves denied land in Ohio

An old photo shows 17 Black men and boys wearing baseball uniforms posed in two rows.
Members of the Randolph Freedpeople pose for a photo.

Columbus lawmaker Dontavius Jarrells wants to tell the story of the Randolph Freedpeople – and to finally give them the legal justice they’ve been owed for nearly 200 years.

Jarrells wants to return state-owned land to descendants of the group of freed Virginia slaves who were denied land in Mercer County, Ohio in the mid-1800s.

In 1833, Virginian John Randolph freed nearly 400 people from slavery in his will. He left money for the purchase of 3,200 acres of land in Mercer County, Ohio, which would have allowed them to make a home.

It took a 13-year legal battle before the freed slaves, who called themselves the Randolph Freedpeople, were able to leave Virginia and head north. They traveled by wagon and on foot before boarding canal boats in Cincinnati.

However, when they neared their new land, they were met with mobs of angry white settlers wielding guns. The residents of Mercer County had resolved, “we will not live among negroes, and as we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist the settlement of blacks and mulattos in this country, to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted.”

The Randolph Freedpeople turned around and settled to the south in parts of Shelby and Miami counties, including Piqua.

In a letter sent to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and other state agencies and lawmakers, Jarrells suggests identifying legal options to “address the injustices faced by the descendants of the Randolph Freedpeople.”

“Ohio lacked the courage to do the right thing then, but I believe we have the courage today,” Jarrells writes.

Jarrells plans to detail how he believes Ohio could return the land that the Randolph Freedpeople were owed and denied. He is scheduled to have a news conference Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Ohio Statehouse.

To learn more about the Randolph Freedpeople, listen to WOSU's Morning Edition on Monday from 5 to 9 a.m. and catch a special episode of All Sides with Anna Staver at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 19.

Photo courtesy of the Ohio History Connection: The Will of the Randolph Freedpeople

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.