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GIST SETTLEMENT, Ohio — Paul Turner, even at age 84, still walks with the razor-straight military bearing ingrained from his time in the Navy. His speech is peppered with polite sirs.
“But my knees aren’t as good as they once were,” Turner explained as he strolled haltingly through shoulder-high goldenrod surrounding the century-old farmstead where he was born.
“When I was a kid, there were 17 houses here,” Turner said, pointing to the fields. But part the tall weeds and one will find only the crumbling remains of old homes, homes that once formed the Gist Settlement and housed the descendants of what was the largest slave emancipation of its time.
Now, Turner is struggling to save the settlement for posterity.
“I want to get this straightened out before I leave this earth,” Turner said.
But Turner isn’t the only one with ideas of how this place’s future should unfold. Almost 200 years after the Gist Settlement was born, there is a dispute between the remaining descendants as to what should be done with the land. Turner wants the land preserved as a living history zone. Others want the few remaining descendants to live on and farm the land as they always have. The present and past are colliding in Highland County courtrooms as attorneys engage in a legal battle and try to untangle Gist’s murky history and chart its future.
For one to understand what is happening now, you have to travel back two centuries. Samuel Gist was a wealthy planter and banker and confidant of George Washington. Gist never stepped foot in America, but his vast holdings included land on both sides of the Atlantic and a portfolio of slaves. As Gist approached the end of his life, he experienced a crisis of conscience and ordered his slaves freed on his death, which occurred in 1815.
Gist’s action constituted the biggest emancipation of its day. He set aside a trust that would pay taxes and care for their education. But first the newly freed slaves had to endure a harrowing journey to Ohio territory, where Gist’s appointed trustees bought thousands of acres of wilderness on which they could settle. It would take almost 15 years of legal wrangling in Virginia courts just to grant the last slaves permission to be transported to Ohio; they were released in batches beginning in 1821.
One group of Gist slaves, as they became known, settled in Brown and Highland counties, where they set about making themselves self-sufficient. As one of the southernmost rural black communities in the North, the settlement became an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
Early on, the community was beset by problems. The Gist Trust monies were either mismanaged or misappropriated, and lots were never properly recorded. Brown County put things in order for the descendants in 1859 by issuing deeds to the lots. But in neighboring Highland County, the settlement, never very large, plunged into a legal morass that lasts to this day.
Without deeds, many families were essentially squatters on their own property. And as people passed away and their homes fell into disrepair, the land sat in limbo. Highland County took over the Gist Trust in 1851 and remained in control until 1948, when Samuel Turner and some other descendants retained a Cleveland attorney to litigate issues of trust monies and deeds. Those legal proceedings dragged out into the 1960s, with no resolution.
Turner picked up the legal torch where his father left off. He lives in Gist’s oldest remaining structure, with a front porch cluttered by artifacts from another era. He climbs into a truck and tours the area. Dogs pile in. One on the dash, a couple of others scamper under the seat.
“This is Uncle Reese’s old place,” Turner said, pointing to an overgrown thicket hiding a caved-in cellar.
Cinderblock dwellings can be seen in the thick honeysuckle, shielding the stories of a hardscrabble history.
“The is Orso Turner’s old place,” he said, pointing into another thicket.
It was here deep in the countryside and fields where slave descendant families lived in log homes, attended a wood frame school, and lived in relative isolation for almost 150 years. The Gist Settlement was always viewed with a combination of suspicion and curiosity by locals. As recently as 1976, the local newspaper, The Wilmington News Journal, wrote of the place, “They are curiously friendly to the visitor. It is a carefree, easy-going community of only eight or nine families.”
“And this … this is Dale Robinson’s place,” Paul Turner said, growing visibly agitated.
His truck slows to a crawl, and he’s met by an angry Robinson in a yard strewn with odds and ends. “What are you doing, Paul?” he asked.
“It’s a public road. What’s it to you?” Turner retorted.
The confrontation is tense but brief, and Turner accelerated his truck down the road.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if he calls the sheriff on me,” Turner said.
Turner singlehandedly keeps what is left of the settlement going, mowing the cemetery grass and keeping the lights on at the now defunct Carthagena Full Gospel Church. He was born in 1931, a hundred years after the first settlers began planting roots in Highland County. In 1950 he left for a 26-year career in the Navy, during which he rose to the rank of master chief petty officer. But his heart was in Gist, so he returned in 1976 and began paying taxes on the parcels of property in an effort to keep them from being foreclosed on. He was steeped in the stories of life in Gist.
“My grandmother Rose is the most important influence in my life. She could not read or write, but she could sing a church hymn,” he said.
The church celebrated its 175th anniversary in 1985 with great fanfare, but the last services were held there in 1999. Turner pays $35 a month to keep the electricity running despite the increasingly dilapidated condition of the church’s interior.
Shortly after the encounter with Robinson, a Highland County Sheriff’s cruiser arrived outside the church. Robinson had summoned the deputy, claiming harassment during the earlier encounter.
“I’m not going to arrest you for that, but we have a warrant out for you that was filed last week,” the poker-faced deputy said. “I’m going to have to take you in.”
Turner squeezed into the back of the cruiser, leaving behind his idling truck, a torrent of choice words and a retinue of rescue dogs. The warrant was for trespassing.
Such is the back and forth between Robinson and Turner. Each makes claims about the other. Turner showed off a “bullet hole” he said was from a shot Robinson fired (Robinson dismisses it as rust) and claims Robinson stole one of his ponies. Robinson views a fire at his house last year with some suspicion and claims nearly daily harassment by Turner’s drive-bys. The unproven allegations fly back and forth.
Meanwhile, the land continues to reclaim Gist one block house at a time.
‘My grandmother Rose is the most important influence in my life. She could not read or write, but she could sing a church hymn.’
Gist Settlement resident
“The bad blood is unfortunate because they are actually cousins descended from Hannibal Turner,” said Melissa Beal Beyerlein, a historian in Kettering, Ohio, who has studied the history of Gist. Hannibal Turner was one of the original slave settlers of the Highland County parcel in 1832.
She points to the local government as a source of the problems.
“There were white people in the government, seats of power and the sheriff, who basically just kept the Gist Settlement residents in their place in a very racist manner,” Beyerlein said.
Highland County Recorder Chad McConnaughey has been in office for only three years but is familiar with the legal wranglings surrounding the Gist properties.
“Most of the lots that were within Gist Settlement were never transferred. Half of those didn’t have deeds documenting the lot. Part of the problem today is that ownership becomes a question. Who is the lawful owner?” McConnaughey said.
In Turner v. Robinson, the Highland County Court of Common Pleas settled almost 150 years of legal limbo in Gist by awarding Paul Turner 19 of the settlement’s 31 lots and Dale Robinson two lots and part of another.
But it does not end the legal problems. “At this point, this took care of all of the lots in question, but there are lots that families still own but don’t have clear deeds because they have never been done,” McConnaughey said.
The court’s decision, which delved deep into Gist’s history, was not enough for Turner, who is trying to gain ownership of Robinson’s lots, which the court awarded to him through adverse possession.
“Had I not paid the taxes, Gist Settlement would have been gone,” Turner said — a sentiment echoed by Paula Wright, who wrote a book about the settlement, “Gist’s Promised Land.”
“There are white farmers in the area who have just been waiting for that land to become available so they can buy it at auction, and if Paul hadn’t paid taxes on it, they would have gotten it,” she said.
“He’s 84 years old. What is he going to do with all of that land?” Robinson, 52, mused, saying that he doesn't think the settlement’s future should be solely up to Turner to decide.
“I’d like us to just live here as we always have and pass the land down to our children,” Robinson said.
The bad blood between Robinson and Turner is rooted in the settlement’s sparsity, said Carl Westmoreland, a senior historian with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
“The situation there is a sense of powerlessness … In black America, in our life experience, we are so marginalized that we turn on one another over things that generally only affect poor people,” he said.
Another question that still haunts some descendants and researchers is, What happened to Gist’s trust? The fund is estimated to have been worth about $1 million (in today’s dollars) in the 1830s, a huge sum.
“No one has ever been able to figure it out. I went way back into the 1800s and tried to work through … I was able to trace money through the early 1900s,” said Ray Marcano, now a communications professor at Wright State University. He spent considerable time in the mid-1980s researching Gist. Was the money somehow plundered?
Westmoreland has been involved in preserving historic black settlements throughout the country and has been to the Gist community. He blames many of the problems today on a legal and societal structural that marginalized black people. Westmoreland said that the future of Gist depends on Robinson and Turner finding common ground and moving forward.
The center would be willing to get involved and mediate, Westmoreland said, if it is asked.
“They need to forget whoever was wrong. They need to forgive that and move forward. Usually in a feud, somebody did something wrong. The most important thing is how to move forward, how to pass on an honorable legacy,” Westmoreland said.