Editor’s note — The following is an excerpt of a Black history project currently underway by Highland County Historical Society members Kati Burwinkel, Myra Phillips and John Glaze.
Highland County was first settled in the New Market area around 1803. Prior to that, this area was home to various native American tribes, including the Shawnee. It wasn’t long before early settlers brought along their slaves and Highland County’s Black population began. The first known permanent Black resident was Thomas Trimble.
James Trimble, a captain in the military during the American Revolution, and his wife, Jane Clark, had 12 children. Thomas Trimble was born in 1787, in Woodford, Kentucky. His actual parentage is not proven, as the reality of slave ownership was that the owner of the slaves sometimes fathered children with female slaves.
The family says that Thomas was an emancipated slave of Captain James Trimble. The story goes that James Trimble decided to free his slaves, come to Ohio and buy land to move there. In 1802, he purchased land in the Fallsville area, then returned to Kentucky. In 1804, he returned to Ohio, planted an orchard and built a cabin, then went back to Kentucky to continue his plans to move the family to Ohio. But James Trimble became sick and died, so his widow completed his dream, moving the family, including Thomas Trimble, to Highland County.
The widow’s oldest son was 21-year-old Allen Trimble, who went on to become an Ohio governors. In 1808, Allen Trimble built a blacksmith shop close to the town on the site where St. Mary’s Episcopal Church now stands. Thomas Trimble, who worked there as an apprentice, was the first permanent Black resident of Highland County.
There were a number of Black settlements in Highland County. Most of them had nicknames such as Smoky Row, Black Rock and Africa. One of the earliest settlements, still existing today, is the Gist Settlement. Once known as “Darktown,” Gist was settled in the early 1800s by a group of freed slaves. The Carthagenia Baptist Church was first built there in 1810. The Gift Settlement of Highland County had 18 families totaling 105 people in 1840, according to Laura Richards, a research history student. There were other Gist settlements were in Adams and Brown counties.
The Hansborough Settlement in Liberty Township began about 1840. Like the Gist Settlement, a group of freed slaves came to Ohio for a better life. The members of Hansborough built log homes, a school and the Clear Creek Colored Baptist Church, which originated in 1842. Hansborough students and their teacher came to the Lincoln School when it opened in 1870. All that remains of Hansborough today is the remnants of the cemetery.
The Sanborn map of Hillsboro, 1893, shows a Baptist church at the end of Railroad Street in Hillsboro. The Youngville Black community was near the intersection of U.S. Route 50 and Fenner Road. Hightop, located near Samantha, was also a thriving community and the early home of activist Imogene Curtis. Leesburg also had a school near Fairfield Church.
Many Black churches have been started in Highland County. Shortly after the Carthagenian Baptist Church began at Gist, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church started in 1830 as Black Rock on property purchase for $5 and located on East Walnut Street. This became known as The Wayman Chapel when the church constructed a new building on West Pleasant Street around 1835. Greenfield’s Shorter Chapel AME opened in 1843 and the Shiloh Baptist Church in 1866. Hillsboro’s New Hope Baptist Church was in several locations before the current church was built in 1908. Wesleyan Methodist had been on North East Street since 1874. Elder Rita Lee was a longtime pastor and great supporter of the Lincoln School marches that led to the integration of the Hillsboro schools.
Blacks in Highland County have always served proudly in the military back to the Civil War. Moses Trimball, son of Thomas Trimble, at age 28, enlisted on Feb. 28, 1865, for one year of service. He served with Company H, 3rd Regiment of the United Stated Colored Heavy Artillery. The 3rd Regiment was organized from the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, African Descent, and served as garrison at Fort Pickering and in defenses of Memphis, Tennessee and in District of West Tennessee.
Moses’ story is only one of many. There were reported to be over 100 Black Union Army soldiers buried in the Hillsboro Cemetery alone. That’s not including those buried in other cemeteries such as Gist, Leesburg, Fairfield Township and Greenfield.
The Underground Railroad passed through Highland County. A number of homes in the area played a big role in the safe transportation of slaves as they moved north toward freedom.
Underground Road, located in northern Highland County, had homes where the residents helped the runaway slaves. By its very nature, information about the system was extremely secretive, but through diligent research of family records and stories, much information has surfaced.
Escape trails started at the Ohio River and wound their way north to Canada, northern Ohio or safe places in between, some being African American settlements such as Gist.
Women changing history
Highland County has a proud history of women making change through peaceful, civil disobedience. Just as Mother Thompson marched in Hillsboro for temperance, so did 19 mothers who marched for integration of the Hillsboro elementary schools in 1954. This became the first northern test case following the landmark Brown vs. Education decision, and the Hillsboro case made civil rights history. In 2017, all the marchers were inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
This story is told at the Highland County Historical Society’s Highland House Museum in the Lincoln School Exhibit, opened in June 2017. A documentary was also produced and a team has traveled across Ohio showing the film and sharing the story.
The event is also chronicled at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, located at the former Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Land was purchased for the all-black Lincoln School in 1869 and the school opened about one year later. A second story was added in later years. The school had four classrooms where grades were combined and went up to the eighth grade. A bathroom, furnace and kitchen were added later as well. The school was set on fire July 5, 1954, by the white county engineer during the fight for integration, but reopened with two redecorated classrooms. After schools were integrated, the Lincoln building sold and was later tore down by the new owner.
The African American Awareness Research Council was founded in 1994. Highland County District Library Manager Laura Waln organized this group that celebrates Black history and honors a citizen each year at its annual meeting. The founding members were Laura Waln, Elsie Steward Young, Edna Raney, Clara Goodrich, Eleanor Cumberland and Robert Lee Smith.
Note — The full book project is still in creation and will include much more information.