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Jennings Sunday: Woman strives to preserve stories

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NORTH VERNON — Sheila Kell’s interest in black history in Jennings County began one day when she was researching the county’s early history property files.

She found original deeds referring to slaves who had been freed.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were human beings’ lives recorded in the same files as homes, farms and livestock,” she said.

That discovery sparked a greater interest and further research. Now, the Jennings County genealogist wants the public’s help in preserving black history in Jennings County.

Kell, of the Jennings County Public Library, would like for county residents to bring to the library’s genealogy department any photos, records or written or oral family histories pertaining to blacks.

One reason is documented history of blacks in Jennings County before it formed in 1817 is sparse.

“I just don’t want to see the story lost,” Kell said.

She said another problem is that histories of any blacks coming through Jennings County to escape slavery were often kept quiet.

After 1813, when more whites moved into the area, many of them were

anti-slavery activists who helped with the Underground Railroad, Kell said. Blacks escaping from slavery often made their way up from the Ohio River.

“A problem is almost everything pertaining to escaping slaves was kept very secret because it had to be; it was illegal for slaves to escape,” Kell said.

John Vawter, who founded Vernon, the county seat, in 1815, was an anti-slave activist who often bought slaves legally in order to free them in the area, said Kell, who operates a genealogy research business. Vawter sold many parcels of land to free blacks. Many former slaves settled in the area now known as Richland Township.

While researching her own family’s history, Kell stumbled across more black history when she learned that most of her relatives who lived in the Lancaster and Paris areas before the Civil War were also avid anti-slave activists. She was not aware of that part of her family’s history and became very interested in the pre-Civil War era’s issues, Kell said.

After becoming involved in research of the Eleutherian College, the first integrated college in Indiana, Kell became increasingly interested in preserving as much black history as she could find.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 led to more records of blacks being kept, Kell said.

The act was a compromise between Southern slave states and Northern free states. It said that any runaway slaves who were captured would be returned to their masters.

“That (recorded history) is good because I have had people come in and request help in finding their family history,” Kell said.

Previous efforts have been made to compile the county’s black history, but the records are not complete, Kell said.

“Lorie Ambertton did a wonderful job of collecting information in the book ‘Historic Black American Sites and Structures In Jennings County,’ but we just don’t have the human stories told in family histories and memories, and we need to get busy on that before it is lost,” Kell said.

Anyone with information or artifacts they would like to share should contact Sheila Kell at the JCPL. Copies of photographs and records will be made, and original records and photos will be returned.

“The story of black history in Jennings County is very, very interesting. Some eras are not pretty, but it is always extremely interesting,” Kell said.

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