Among the many historic figures of great figures that Greenfield was once home to the Rev. George C. Braxton, a former slave, two-time war veteran, and respected hero to the citizens of the town. He stood tall, sported a white beard, and a distinctive grin, and is reported to have charmed just about everyone he met. He was friendly and heroic.
Braxton was born in 1827. John Quincy Adams was in the White House, slavery was the backbone of the American South’s economy, and slowly but surely, pioneers began to venture west to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. This was the age in which Braxton grew up as a slave on a Virginia plantation.
Braxton’s early life is undocumented. He was one of the estimated 50,000 plantation slaves living in Virginia and working in the fields. He was likely harvesting tobacco, a huge cash crop of the 1800s, although the details of his enslavement are unknown. Somewhere along the line, Braxton served in the Civil War alongside other slaves.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Once the Civil War was over and he was freed, Braxton moved to Greenfield to start a new life. Although his exact age is unknown, records say Braxton believed he was 42 years old when he arrived in Greenfield. His master had once kept a stick in which he carved a notch every year, keeping track of Braxton’s age. Braxton remembered 42 notches on his “birthday stick” at the time of his emancipation.
According to newspaper reports from the time, Braxton was gracious and polite to all he encountered. Despite the adversities of his childhood, he found solace in Christianity, becoming a Rev. at the Shiloh Baptist Church. He was a familiar figure in Greenfield, and a beloved member of the community. Braxton claimed he was the first black man to be married in Ohio, and fathered 17 children.
During World War I, Braxton again served in the “Redman Colored Home Guards of World War I, Greenfield, Section 1” alongside 17 other African-Americans.
Legend has it that Braxton once saved the Greenfield Town Hall from burning when a decorative kerosene chandelier fell and lit the town hall ablaze. Braxton leapt into action, beating down the growing flames with his only coat, successfully saving the historic building. The citizens of Greenfield, grateful for his heroism, raised enough money to purchase Braxton a new coat, which he accepted proudly.
Braxton died in Columbus in 1942. If his “birthday stick” was accurate, Braxton lived to be 115 years old.
After his death, the citizens of Greenfield honored Braxton with a monument reading, “George Braxton 1827—1942. Aged 115 Years. Slave and free man. Christian Gentleman.”
George Braxton was born into slavery, but he overcame hardships and exhibited unfaltering bravery in two major wars. This Greenfield man was able to overcome his tragic past and become a man of great respect and a historic Highland County figure.
Editor’s note: Information for this story was provided by the Greenfield Historical Society.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.