Sunday, July 20, 2003

Slave descendants reunite


Their relatives, freed by Virginia master, traveled to Ohio on foot

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Sandra Soweto, of the West End, reads a story to Kieron Mays, 3, at the Gist Slave Settlement Foundation Family Reunion at Mt. Airy Forest on Saturday.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
Lois Fields Anderson fondly recalled Saturday how her Aunt Ethel used to say their family had always been "a free people."

She was almost right.

Anderson, 72, formerly of Walnut Hills, is a distant relative of Nelson Anderson, one of more than 350 slaves freed in 1815 by a Virginia slavemaster's dying gesture.

Samuel Gist, an English slaveholder and land owner, ordered in his last will and testament that all his slaves be freed and settled in a free state. The trustees of his will bought land for the slaves in Brown, Highland and Erie counties in Ohio and moved them there in 1819.

Lois Anderson was one of more than 100 descendants from all three settlements who attended the 5th annual Gist Slave Settlement Foundation Family Reunion at Mount Airy Forest on Saturday.

Anderson, one of the foundation's historians, said she doesn't believe in looking a gift horse in the mouth, but often wonders what made Gist decide to let her people go.

"Did he have a change of heart? Or was it something else? You just don't know," she said. "It just wasn't that common of a thing to do at that time."

Though descendants of the slaves may never know Gist's true motives, the annual family reunion helps provide them with insight into their genealogy.

The Gist Slave Settlement Foundation was formed in 1998 to bring together as many descendants of Gist's freed slaves as possible and to educate them about their bloodlines.

Organizers of the reunion said this year's gathering had special significance since a number of descendants from the Anderson family reside in Cincinnati. Some ancestors who attended the event came from Chicago and Detroit.

"The highlight for me is the fellowship and just talking to people and finding new relatives," said Dorothy Cobb Hiles, 76, of Roselawn, a descendant of the Anderson family. "I'm hoping the young people will get involved and ask questions while they are here."

Clara Goodrich, 82, and her daughter Natalie Amato, 43, sat under a shelter at the Oakridge Lodge, eating barbecued ribs and flipping through an old photo album. The women are descendants of the Page family, also former Gist slaves.

Fork in hand, Goodrich, a resident of Hillsboro, began to tell the story of Hannibal "Hawk" Williams, a Gist descendant and Civil War veteran who once successfully sued two poll workers for denying him a chance to vote. Williams was the half-brother Goodrich never knew her grandfather had until recently.

"You're definitely in for some surprises when you start looking into your family history," said Goodrich, who is also the foundation's assistant treasurer.

Amato, of Forest Park, said she is determined to find out as much as possible about the ancestors who made the long trek from a Virginia plantation to rugged farmland in Ohio.

"For the past year, I've been working and searching," said Amato, who has collected stacks of genealogical books, papers and pictures. "My husband calls it my obsession.

"I think everybody should know where he or she comes from," she said. "My next trip is to England (where Gist is from)."

A month ago, Amato took her mother on a road trip to Virginia and the Gould Hill Plantation where it all started. While there, they scoured the Virginia Historical Society's archives, even digging up old census data.

"When we were driving over to Virginia, I kept envisioning what those people had to go through traveling to Ohio on foot," Amato said. "All those hills, all that rough land and there I was driving in the comfort of a car.

"These people had to struggle to get here," she said. "Some of them didn't make it. They had to be strong and courageous people."

Peggy Mills Warner, president of the Gist Slave Settlement Foundation, has made it a priority to see that her ancestors receive national recognition.

Warner, a descendant of the Toler family, grew up in Georgetown in Brown County, became so immersed in the mystique of the Gist story that she gave up life in suburban Milford to move back to Brown County. She bought one of the settlement tracts near Fincastle in the late 1990s and built a new home on the land.

Warner is a music teacher by trade, but her true passion lies in keeping the memory of the settlement alive.

For the past five years, Warner has almost single-handedly kept the reunions going. Now, it appears, other family members are pitching in.

Committees were formed at the gathering to oversee reunion financing and to seek non-profit status for the Gist Slave Settlement Foundation.

"It's my life's work," Warner said. "Now I think other people are seeing the vision too."

A short history of the Gist settlements

Samuel Gist was an English slaveholder and land owner in Virginia. He went back to England during the Revolutionary War and left his holdings to be run by his son-in-law, William Anderson.

Before his death, Gist instructed that his former slaves be settled in Sierra Leone, Africa, or in a free state. Ohio was selected, since it was a free state.

In 1815, Gist died in England at the age of 92, and more than 350 slaves were set free.

His people bought land for the former slaves in Brown, Highland and Erie counties in Ohio.

The former slaves arrived in 1819 and found a wild rugged land where farming was tough. Some elected to return to Virginia, where they were put back into slavery, rather than struggle in the wild land of Ohio.

The family names of the freed slaves: Anderson, Ash, Baker, Breckenridge, Burr, Cluff (Clough), Cumberland, Dicey (Disey), Ellis, Gist (Guest), Hudson (Hutson), Jarvis (Jarnes), Jerrison, Johnson (Johnston), Jones, Lucas, Moss (Morse), Nash, Page, Potter, Prosser, Robinson, Rollins, Slater, Smith, Sneed (Snead), Tatman, Toler (Tolar, Toller), Turner, Wallace, Williams, Woodson.Email kaldridge@enquirer.com




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