The Community Within documents and presents two centuries of African American experience in Knox County, Ohio, through a public exhibit and interpretive booklet. The project arose out of a partnership between Kenyon College faculty and students and the local Black community, who have worked together to develop and implement the exhibit. The exhibit includes photographs, documents, and other artifacts contributed by the Black community, interview excerpts, and narratives on local Black history.
In preparation for the project, students and faculty investigated primary and secondary materials on the county’s history, considered community studies of Black life in the rural Midwest, conducted field trips throughout Knox County, considered various writings on Black social institutions and consciousness, and learned historical and field research techniques. Students made initial contact with area residents through visits to the county’s three Black churches. The class subsequently met with approximately eighteen representatives of the Black community; this diverse group included men and women ranging in age from twenty-five to eighty years, life-long residents and newcomers, laborers and professionals. On the basis of this and subsequent discussions with the community and our preparatory studies, the class developed a specific project to construct an exhibit exploring the past and present of Knox County’s Black community.
As researchers and students, this project has provided us with the unique opportunity to work closely with the local Black community. Through that experience, many friendships have been established that will last beyond this project. A connection has been made, a seed has been planted, a mutual understanding cultivated. It is our hope that this project will represent a beginning, not solely an end. It is our hope that the relationships and scholarship that have been started here will continue, to preserve the past and build a future.
The African American experience in Knox County began in 1800, as small numbers of Black people settled alongside White on the Ohio frontier. Arriving initially as either individual servants in White households or as migrant laborers from the middle-Atlantic states, Black residents eventually established their own families. By 1850, 61 African Americans live among Knox County’s 28,000 inhabitants. In the decades following the Civil War, as industrial growth laid the foundation for a thriving community in Mount Vernon, the Black population grew to some 300 people. As time and technology advanced, Black folks began to move from the periphery of Mount Vernon into working-class neighborhoods in the heart of the community; the number of independent Black tradesmen grew, evidencing advances in the status and independence of the area’s African American people; a new flow of migration from the South brought more Black families into the community; and African Americans established distinct religious, fraternal, and social organizations. Today, almost two centuries after those first settlers arrived, this small community continues within the dominant society, carriers of a distinct cultural heritage.
The African American community in Knox County is dynamic and complex, encompassing a wide array of perspectives. Nonetheless. There are distinct markers that, when taken together, convey a common understanding of Black life in this area over the past two centuries. These markers are evident in the shared experiences and common beliefs of most local Black residents as well as in the extensive kin network that connects community members. This distinct perspective is expressed in the stories and lore told throughout the community and passed from one generation to the next and by the particular ways in which Black people come together to worship, work, and socialize. According to Black community member Robert Madison, “I feel that people begin to mingle with others when they have begun to have more celebration and more enjoyment in their lives. When Blacks in the past have come together, it has been a positive thing.”