• My series “Isolated Truths” documents Underground Railroad stops and the genealogical heritage of people of color in Southeastern Ohio (Appalachia) who are known as Melungeon. In 2013 while I was a student at Ohio University. During this time I set out on a project to find local African American communities in the area, but instead found something much more complicated.

    Local historian Henry Burke, of melungeon heritage himself explained in 1999,“Along the Atlantic coastal region of the United States, and in various locations in Appalachia, there is a remnant group of people that are tentatively identified as having the mixed racial heritage Native American, African American and European American. Following the American tradition of labeling people by the color of their skin color, people that obviously are not descendants of purely northern European heritage, … have been variously called; [WIN- White, Indian, Negro], Carmel Indians, Mustees, Brass Ankles, Nanacokes, Moors, Tri-Racial Isolates, Melungeons and some other names.” (Henry Burke, 1999)

    The Underground Railroad’s presence in the state of Ohio before 1832, up until the Civil War in 1861, played a major role in the development of this mixed heritage background. Many escaped and freed slaves would have made their way across the Ohio River from the neighboring states to the south – Kentucky and West Virginia (still Virginia during this time period) – settling permanently or passing through on their way to Canada.

    I was able to embed myself with people from this group for a period of six months. From my own research and interviews, I began to uncover personal stories of mixed-heritage that had no opportunity of expression outside of the community. People who had to pass as white, and who suffered racial discrimination in the past and even now in this present day. 



Robert Gordon b.1963 in Gallipolis, OH.


His family goes back 5-6 generations in the region and one of his immediate uncles was one of the last black dairy farmers in the state of Ohio. In 1861 his ancestor (great-great grandfather ) Henry Hutchinson escaped slavery by crossing the Ohio River into Gallipolis then on to Poke Patch, from then Mason County, Virginia, what is now known as Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

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Elaine Armstrong b.1946 New Haven, Connecticut.


Personally, the earliest memories where color played a part were not so much from other people. I remember when I was very young, probably about six, we got dolls for Christmas, rag dolls, my sister and me. Mine was very browned skin, and hers was more of a yellowish-tannish color. I remember I did not want mine; I wanted hers, because it was lighter. I can remember being in school, and being around other kids, taking my forearm and saying to them “see I’m almost the same color as you,” as if that made me better, stupid stuff like that.

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Dr. Harold Thompson b.1948 Chicago, Illinois | Athens County Corner.


"I have African American, and Native American blood, and I have white blood. However, my parents identify as black. All of my grandparents identified as black. My mother could not pass for white but my father could. Three out of four of my grandparents could pass for white. When I was in highschool, I went down to the employment agency like everyone else did, trying to get jobs and so forth. I got a job selling the Merit Encyclopedia. So, I had to go to training sessions to learn how to do this. I was the only black person there, and I am only a kid. I was listening to them talk about how to sell, and I noticed one of the fellas said laughingly, “You tell them, if they don’t buy these Encyclopedia’s those blacks are going to move in next door,” and they all started laughing. I didn't go in there saying one thing. I just didn’t say anything. So, now I am in this situation, what do you do? I never purposely tried to be something; I just didn’t say anything. When people overcome this race thing, I am just amazed. People always ask me, “How did you make it?” And I say, “Because I had a family.” I had a strong family just by the fact that I could say I knew my great-grandmother. Most people don't even know their grandparents. I could build on that. I had two grandparents who went to college, in the 1920’s. I took it for granted, and it didn't dawn on me. My grandmother wanted to be a schoolteacher so she went on to college. In those days, it was just two years of college. But my other grandfather went to Howard University; I took that for granted, it didn't even dawn on me at the time.

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Paul E. Turner of the Gist Settlement, b.1931 New Vienna, OH.


Through the terms of his will, British absentee landowner Samuel Gist (c.1723-1815) freed his 350 Virginia slaves and provided funds for their relocation, the purchase of land and homes, and the establishment of schools and churches. Gist’s executors acquired over 2,000 acres of land in Ohio, including two large tracts in Scott and Eagle townships in Brown County in 1819. In 1831 and 1835, an agent of the Gist estate purchased 207 acres in Fairfield Township (now Penn Township), Highland County, and divided the acreage into thirty-one lots. The Gist Settlement in Highland County was the last to be purchased and settled. In 1857, the Ohio Legislature granted the Highland County Court of Common Pleas control over the freedmen’s trust monies. “I just want to get things straight before I leave here. I take nothing with me. I’ve paid $100, 000 if you add up all the current and back taxes on this land. Everyone who owned the small plots on this settlement are dead now, and all of them are all considered residential. That’s why I pay more taxes than anyone in Highland County, but there aren’t any houses anymore, it’s all farmland, so I’m going get that changed. In Hillsboro, Ohio, they want this place to disappear because the money for the taxes disappeared.”

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Dessie Mae Workman b.1938 Utly, Ohio.


During my lifetime, I cleaned houses first and then later on I became an LPN nurse.

I was born in a place that is no longer on the map, called Utley, Ohio. Right, off route 329, right where I live now.

The Hulbert side, the mother’s side of my family, they left and went to Canada and then they migrated back to this area to get out of the slavery. Black and African American is the only branch we've ever identified with, but we do have a little bit of Indian (Native American) in us.

One thing that I do remember is when I was, I don't remember what grade I was in, our class went to Athens to go to a movie. Course I got into the movie alright, but then when I stopped, coming home to eat, we set down at a table and everybody had their order taken but me. And that was hurtful. It was just a thing known that this place you knew not to go in. In Athens County about the only place a black family could comfortably sit down and eat was at the greyhound bus station. 

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-Sediment from the Ohio River at Gallipolis City Park, which is the original settlement of the city by the French in 1790. Slaves crossing over into Ohio from Virginia would have set foot in this same place on their way to freedom. Such as Robert Gordon and Carolyn Casey’s ancestor David Hutchinson who escaped from Mason County Virginia, present day Point Pleasant, West Virginia.


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-The Union Baptist Church of BlackFork was organized in 1819. The congregation built a log church building on the Wicky Jones farm. The first minister was Rev. K. L. Carter of Franklin Valley. As the church grew, it relocated to the farm of John Keels. The timbers used to construct the new church were recycled from the Saunders Church. Many members of the church were involved in the work of the Underground Railroad.

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-On the Marietta to Chillicothe Pike, the first highway built in Ohio, sits what was known as the Sawyer Inn a notorious spot for Underground Railroad conductors. It became the first Underground Railroad station in Ohio around 1812, sitting right on the Ohio River in Little Hocking, Ohio. Its original color was red. Pioneer settler Nathaniel Sawyer built the house in 1798, and operated a tavern or “public house” from this same residence. He filed his first application for a tavern license in 1799 and operated it as such until he sold the house in 1806. “Public houses” were uniformly painted red, as red lead paint was the cheapest available and, to set them apart from “private houses." 

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-Mr. Turner inspects the church followed by his dogs, after weeks since his last vist to the property. The house that he occupies sits about a half mile behind the church. But as stated before he gets around less these days due to his age and health.

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-Remains of what used to be the interior of the church that sits on the Gist Settlement. Turner said that the building has been sitting idle for years after there was no congregation left several years ago, since then the property has been lotted and trashed by drug addicts for it’s valubles, like cooper and metal.

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