Research by a genealogist at the Jennings County Public Library has pieced together more of the local African-American legacy, showing that it had an important role in the early history of the county.
Sheila Kell has found evidence in old court records, newspaper accounts and family keepsakes to confirm that during the 1800s, Jennings County was home to a thriving community of escaped slaves, legally freed blacks and blacks who had never been slaves.
“I kind of stumbled into all of this as I was researching unrelated individual family histories,” Kell said. “Maybe, I was looking for a record of a birth or marriage or death but my eye caught a case of a petition for freedom papers or a court case of someone caught aiding a slave. I became very interested.”
Historical records show the earliest settlers of Jennings County were most often abolitionists who opposed slavery. The early pioneers created a friendly environment for escaping slaves fleeing nearby slave states.
“It’s impossible to know how many escaped slaves there were because they didn’t want to be found, but there were so many they decided to create their own town located near the edge of Vernon. They named the town Richland,” said Kell, who has pieced records and clippings together to show Richland was complete with churches, schools, home and cemeteries.
Many Jennings County homes built in the early 1800s are still standing and have bits and pieces of the mystery of the Underground Railroad they were once a part of. However, records to document the comings and goings of escaping slaves and the people who helped them are mostly lost. However, Kell found records of trials of both blacks and whites who helped slaves stay nearby or escape further north through the Underground Railroad.
“The problem is everything about the Underground Railroad had to be kept secret, and keeping those secrets was serious business,” Kell said.
The legal punishments for assisting escaping slaves were severe and included imprisonment, whippings, fines and confiscation of property. Even death was a threat at the hands of determined bounty hunters.
Kell said that Hicklin family was notable in Jennings County because it operated an Underground Railroad station at the family home near Little Graham Creek. Jennings County Circuit Court records from 1844 show one the cases against the Hicklins for harboring escaping slaves.
William and Margaret Hicklin came to Jennings County in 1819, and with their sons Thomas, Lewis, John and James operated their Underground Railroad Station and fought openly against slavery. The sons frequently picked up escaping slaves in Madison and transported them to the family farm until they could be transported north to safety. On one such trip, Thomas was captured, imprisoned and tried as a criminal. He was found innocent of two counts but guilty of harboring a slave. He was severely fined and eventually released from jail.
The Hicklin family home still stands today, restored and protected by Kathryn and Eric Johnson, who are proud to show the ancient steps to the basement where they believe slaves were kept until they could be moved safely.
Several court cases also tell the story of slaves who came to Jennings County to be legally freed by their southern owners. Many remained in the area, some living in Richland and others lived in Vernon and other areas of the County.
Old newspapers tell the story of black citizens born free who moved into this area because they felt safe. In her obituary, Mrs. Dollie Kersey was recorded as having been born a free black in North Carolina in 1808 and moved into the Jennings County area in the 1830s. She was well known as the mother of 18 children and a woman who had helped in the area’s Underground Railroad. She died in 1888.
Old newspapers also mention the lives and times of the community of Richland with stories of weddings, funerals church functions and school events.
“I am not the only one working on this. There are many others trying to gather facts and information about the Underground Railroad and those times. Sometimes it is tedious but I am going to continue to try to find the story of black history in this county,” Kell said.
Kell is hoping to piece together the names of those buried in the two cemeteries of Richland.
“My dream is to reconstruct the cemeteries. We don’t know much about their lives but maybe the information of their death will let us know who they were and that they once lived here,” Kell said.