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A long-forgotten black cemetery in northwest Ohio is finally recognized

A long-forgotten black cemetery in northwest Ohio is finally recognized
A long-forgotten black cemetery in northwest Ohio is finally recognized

This article was originally published on April 9, 2024.

On the surface, the field Sarah Marshall is standing next to, just outside of Defiance, is nothing special. It sits off a country road, empty and motionless, like any other soybean field in northwest Ohio waiting to be planted.

But Marshall, an adult services employee at the Defiance Public Library, knows better.

“It’s probably about the distance of a football field from where we are now,” Marshall said, pointing to the trucks driving past from across the street. “You can see a kind of hill in the field there.”

This small hill is a resting place. The cemetery belonged to Archibald Worthington, a former slave who moved from Virginia to Ohio in the mid-19th century. As a free man, he acquired wealth, land, and apprentices. And he created a designated burial site for blacks in Defiance County.

“At that time, they had nowhere else to be buried. So this was an important thing for the community that lived there,” Marshall said.

A woman in a red sweater looks out over a field.

Kendall Crawford

/

Ohio Newsroom

Sarah Marshall looks out over the field where an old black burial site was used for agriculture.

Ohio was an important part of the Underground Railroad, a stop on the road to freedom in the early 19th century. And for many blacks, the state was not just part of the journey, it was their destination. They built homes, farmed land, and started families.

But in northwest Ohio, few reminders of their legacy remain.

Uncovering Worthington’s story

From the road, the cracked earth and the remains of roots make it impossible to tell that this is a burial site. The stone markers that commemorated their lives have long since disappeared, moved by the farmers who followed them.

Marshall thought that was wrong. She said she wanted to do everything in her power to undo the damage that had been done and preserve the stories of the people buried there.

So she teamed up with another library employee, Renee Hopper, to piece together his story. They combed through census reports, interviewed local historians and archaeology students, and even sent a dog squad to the cemetery to confirm the location. Together, Marshall and Hopper put together a history of Archibald Worthington to share with the public.

A bookshelf from the Defiance Public Library contains historical records of the city directory.

Kendall Crawford

/

Ohio Newsroom

Sarah Marshall researched Worthington’s life at the Defiance Public Library.

Hopper said each new piece of history they uncovered increased their urgency to remember Worthington.

One thing I always do when we go out there, whether they can hear me or not, is ‘We’re here to help people remember you,’ Hopper said.

Ohio’s early black settlers

Worthington Cemetery is likely just one of many lost African-American cemeteries in rural Ohio, said Noël Voltz, assistant professor of history at Case Western Reserve University.

We are talking about hundreds of black people. They are buried somewhere,” Voltz said. “But unfortunately many of them were destroyed because they were not valued.”

A small dog on a leash trots past white flags placed in a field.

KYK9 search dogs came to Defiance to confirm the location of Worthington Cemetery.

In the 1860s, Ohio was home to thousands of black settlers. Many of them were former slaves, like Worthington, who had migrated from the South in search of a better life. They traveled together and established their own communities in rural Ohio.

We talk about ‘Black Cleveland’ or ‘Black Cincinnati,’ but really it’s rural life that very much shapes black life in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region (at that time),” she said.

Today, Defiance County is nearly 95 percent white. Voltz says that’s no accident. Discrimination and violence drove blacks from their homes. She suspects that may be one of the reasons Worthington eventually left his Ohio home – and the burial site he planned.

They are often referred to as the disappearing black communities of northwest Ohio,” Voltz said. “In the 1870s, many of the blacks living there were displaced by race riots.”

Undo the damage

Blacks played an important role in shaping northwest Ohio. Through Marshall’s thorough research of historical records, the librarian discovered that Worthington was not just a successful farmer. He actively shaped the landscape and helped dig the ditches that still line the highway today. He later served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Archibald Worthington's name appears on a draft card for the Civil War.

Archibald Worthington’s name appears on a draft card for the Civil War.

And she was able to share some of her findings with Victoria Gray, a descendant of Worthington. After Marshall contacted her, Gray was inspired to research her ancestry and learn more about her family’s past.

“It’s unbelievable that there was a black cemetery there. And it’s sad in some ways that it was desecrated,” Gray said. “But the fact that it once existed fills me with pride.”

She wants her ancestors’ stories, like Worthington’s, to be preserved for younger generations. A historical marker will help with that. Thanks to research by Marshall and her team, the Ohio History Connection awarded the site an official marker that will tell Worthington’s story.

School buses will drive by and the kids will see these markers and people in the community will see them and hopefully bring their families and read what it says. Read a part of their history that has always been there but they didn’t really know about,” Marshall said.

Two women stand smiling in front of a long field that stretches to the horizon.

Kendall Crawford

/

Ohio Newsroom

Renee Hopper and Sarah Marshall, staff members of the Defiance Public Library, are committed to ensuring Worthington’s cemetery is remembered.

It will take some time to create and install the headstone, but already Marshall’s research into Worthington has sparked action. A community group, the Friends of Worthington Cemetery, hopes to raise enough money to buy the land from the local water company and ensure it is not farmed in the future.

It would be open for people like Gray to come and pay their respects. She lives in Florida, but she plans to come to northwest Ohio for the first time to attend the dedication of the historic monument on the edge of the field where her great-great-grandfather made Ohio history. She wants to host a family reunion there.

It will be a celebration of the lives of her ancestors, which, as she herself says, is long overdue.

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