Written and Photographed by William Bryant Rozier
Part One: Identification
Sim Smith is buried in the nondescript Carthagena Black Cemetery at the intersection of U.S. 127 and State Road 274 in the unincorporated community of Carthagena, Ohio (about an hour’s drive from Fort Wayne, Indiana).
Smith lived in an unheated home and was found sitting in a chair by the stove. The cause of his death (on December 3, 1936) was noted as starvation, but the lack of warmth could have played a factor. Sim Smith never married and was the last of his family. One of the youngest buried is Lucy Moore who died in 1882, at age eight.
Some of the surnames stand out, buzzing with potential for a Fort Wayne connection: Vaughn, Robinson, and Harrison. The Bush family has one of the largest gravestones.
The graveyard itself does not draw attention. The closest city to the Carthagena community is Celina, Ohio. The best identifiable landmark close to the cemetery is the St. Aloysius Catholic Church; if you’re driving on U.S. 127, you’ll see the church first and the cemetery second. (The cemetery is located at 6036 S.R. 274, Carthagena, Ohio 45822.)
As noted on the cemetery’s historical marker, the Carthagena Black Cemetery is a remnant of approximately 70 documented black rural settlements established throughout the state of Ohio before the Civil War.
Carthagena is a Union Cemetery, with eight Civil War veterans laid to rest. William Bunn, Sandy Bush, and Western H. Moore were Army Privates. The village of Carthagena was Ohio’s largest all-black settlement; more than 600 residents owned over 10,000 acres of land in four adjoining townships. The village was established in August 1835 by Quaker abolitionist Augustus Wattles who led 15 black families to Mercer County because of its isolation and abundant farmland; the resident would live principally by agriculture.
Augustus was also a teacher; following his natural instinct for the black families called The Emlen Institute; the St. Charles Seminary, a retirement home for priests and lay persons, stands now where Emlen once stood.
Wattles and the 15 families fled -- by oxcart -- to Mercer County from Cincinnati, Ohio. During the spring of 1829, the city’s resentment towards its prosperous 2,000 African American residents started to boil over with the strict enforcement of a languished 1807 law, known as the Black Laws, that required the registration of African Americans.
The plan was to discourage black settlement, thus easing the concerns of Irish immigrants and Anglo American residents who were concerned about losing their jobs and opportunities to both free and fugitive blacks.
Tensions led to the city’s first of two race riots within seven years (a third occurred in 1841). It’s estimated that 1100-1500 African Americans fled Cincinnati to place like Canada (and also places like Mercer County).
By the time Wattles and the 15 left Cincinnati, 3,500 blacks lived in the city, with 1,200 free. Those who weren’t free were working to buy their freedom at an average cost of $500.
According to the Carthagena’s Black Cemetery Historical Marker, by 1860, about 100 black and mixed-race families (600 people total) owned more than 10,900 acres in the adjacent townships around Carthagena.
In the 1840s, however, a dispute over a will left after the death of a slave owner brought racial tension to the forefront in Carthagena. Virginia slave owner John Randolph, upon his death, left land near Carthagena to his former slaves. When the former slaves attempted to claim their land, white mobs drove them away. By the early 1900s, the black community began their exodus, after bouts of intimidation, more violence and subterfuge involving forging signatures on deeds. The Jennings family, considered the last blacks to live in Carthagena, left in the 1960s.
Part 2 of The All-Black Cemetery of Mercer County, Ohio story will drop in Issue 3 of the FWIS.
Research for this story was pulled from the following resources: OhioHistoryConnection.org, the Mercer County Genealogy Society, Father David Hoying of the St. Charles Seminary and his research.
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