Black history stories close to home
Discussion highlights how area has been witness to history
From a slave who later became a millionaire to a black Union soldier who received the military’s highest award, Southeastern Ohio has been home to many notable black Americans.
They were celebrated Friday at “Black in the MOV,” a panel discussion hosted by Marietta College sharing stories of African-Americans who impacted the area throughout history.
“It’s been a rough road for the black people in this country,” said historian Nancy Aiken. “I just think when you have a chance to say good things and talk about all the good they’ve done, you take advantage of that.”
Milton Holland was a Union Army soldier during the Civil War and a recipient of America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. He joined the Army in Athens and attended one of the only schools in the country to accept black students.
“Holland’s father sent him and his brothers up to Ohio from Texas just to get an education,” said Aiken. “His school was in Albany and was a huge site for the Underground Railroad. He went there in 1848, unfortunately, the school burned down in 1885 and they never rebuilt it. Holland still went on the become a war hero.”
After the war, Holland went to work for the Treasury Department, according to Aiken.
“He then studied law and got a law degree,” she said.
Holland died of a heart attack late in life and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Nelson T. Gant was another significant figure with ties to the region. Born a slave, Gant went on to become a millionaire while he lived in Zanesville.
“Nelson even hung out with Frederick Douglass,” said Connie Norman, president of the Nelson T. Gant Foundation in Zanesville. “He went on to become very wealthy. To go from being someone’s property to having your own is incredible.”
Gant was born into slavery on May 10, 1821 in Virginia, receiving his freedom upon his owner’s death in 1845. He spent the next year in Virginia, selling firewood in the hopes of earning enough money to purchase his wife, Anna Marie Hughes, who was a slave in Virginia. Gant eventually came to Zanesville to work and in February 1847, secured his wife’s freedom from her owner in Leesburg, Va.
“Nearly everyone can relate to this love story,” said Keisha Norris, board member for the Nelson T. Gant Foundation. “He was in love and being kept from his wife but kept working to get her back.”
Gant and his wife settled in Zanesville where they eventually owned 300 acres. He earned a living as a farmer, but he also owned a salt lick and a coal mine. Gant also helped fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad.
“People would stop from all over to visit Nelson,” said Norris. “At the foundation, we celebrate his birthday every year. I felt like as a young person I was robbed of this rich history in our area.”
He eventually sold 20 acres to the Townsend Brick Company, which turned the land into a public park that is now the home of Municipal Stadium in Zanesville.
Friday’s event was attended by about 30 people.
Marietta College sophomore Cassie Smith, 19, is studying early childhood education and her teacher mentioned the panel.
“I think it’s important to bring awareness to the history of this area,” she said. “There’s so much local stuff that’s happened.”
Jayson Douglas, coordinator for diversity and inclusion, said it’s important to hear stories like this.
“We need to tell our story,” said Douglas. “The community is responsible for telling each other things about these people’s stories.”