Section: Features

From the archives: Knox County’s 216 years of Black history

As the new year slowly moves along, Kenyon, Knox County and the nation at large are preparing to celebrate Black History Month. Though there have been Black residents of Knox County since its inception, there has been an unfortunate tendency to overlook the importance of their history and connection to the area. An archival project titled “The Community Within: Knox County Black History Archive,” overseen by the Rural Life Initiative with funding from the Ohio Humanities Council, attempted to remedy this oversight during the 1992-93 school year by compiling the annals of Black history in Knox County. This Black History Month, the archives offer a chance to honor the stories of those who came before. 

Beginning with the 1808 incorporation of the City of Mount Vernon, Enoch Harris was recorded as the first Black resident of Knox County. Shortly thereafter, in 1835, the county saw its first recorded marriage of Black people with the union of Thomas Snowden and Ellen Cooper. Racial tensions were high across the country in the leadup to the Civil War, and Knox County was no exception — in 1836, a mob attacked an abolitionist meeting at the First Congregational Church. In spite of the racism that inspired the attack, the Underground Railroad had stops in our corner of Ohio, with citizens aiding fugitive slaves in Mount Vernon and Fredericktown. 

Following the 1870 ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to Black men, Mount Vernon’s Black Zouave military unit marched down Main Street in celebration. A few years later, in 1877, famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass visited Kirk Hall in Mount Vernon to give a lecture. He is not the only famous Black thinker to visit Knox County — in 1947, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes visited the Hill and notoriously asked “Why aren’t there any Black people at Kenyon?” 

By 1880, the population of Black residents in Knox County swelled to a 19th-century high of 319 (1% of the total). Shortly thereafter, Samuel J. Simmons became the first Black graduate of Mount Vernon High School. Despite these milestones marking advancement for the Black community, Knox County remained largely segregated. An 1884 lawsuit against the owners of an ice rink alleged that Black patrons had been denied access because of their race and was one of the first suits to be filed under the Ohio Civil Rights Act. Still, the Black community persevered, with the county’s first Black-owned business opening in 1892. 

A particularly dark moment in Knox County’s history came about in 1905 when Black resident George Copeland was falsely accused of murdering a white woman. According to the Knox County Black History Archives, “a lynching [was] narrowly averted” before Copeland was freed. In the years following, numerous Black social organizations were formed and fostered connections among Black residents. This included a community chorus (founded in 1916) as well as several public service entities like the 1918 Wayman Chapel Auxiliary (a chapter of the Red Cross). By 1920, Mount Vernon had 420 Black residents.

Between 1920 and 1935, the Mount Vernon Giants formed as a semi-professional Black men’s baseball team, playing across Knox County. Meanwhile, in 1930, acclaimed singer Marian Anderson performed in the city and stayed in the home of a local resident — she would return a few years later in 1939 to perform a sold-out concert at the Memorial Theater, just weeks before her famous performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

1964 was a notable year for Black educators in Knox County, with Gilbert Newsom becoming the first Black teacher at Mount Vernon High School and Audrey Holt becoming the first Black elementary school teacher in the county after joining the faculty at the Meadow Lane School in Gambier. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the NAACP established its first branch in Knox County in 1970 and boasted 65 members by the end of its first year. In 1971, Charles Chancellor was elected to the Mount Vernon Board of Education, becoming the first Black person elected to public office in Knox County.

The Black history of Knox County extends right into the heart of Kenyon, with the close relationship between the College and the county necessitating a shared past. In more recent memory, Tamara Parson ’93 became the first Black student from Mount Vernon to graduate from Kenyon — she was president of her class. 

As we embark on this month of learning, remembering and honoring, initiatives like the Knox County Black History Archive help us to immortalize the memory of Knox County’s Black residents. Their impact on local history should be celebrated all the time — not just in February.

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