I have always read that many of our early black Toledo families settled here due to being runaway slaves and escaping to their freedom. Due to Toledo’s distance from the southern slave holding states and its proximity to Canada, I am sure that many of our early black residents were indeed fugitives seeking to own themselves and gain control over their own lives and provide their children with greater opportunities. Unfortunately, it is very difficult at times putting together the stories of our early resident’s lives to confirm their history, especially if they were not well known and just lived ordinary lives. For me, the lives of ordinary people are just as important and inspiring as the more well known, so focusing on some of our unknown early black Toledo residents has been rewarding.
Due to the difficulty of researching little known persons, I was excited to find an interesting bit of information about one of the families on my list to research – the DENT family lead by patriarch John DENT.
John DENT and his wife Sarah were first enumerated in NW Ohio on the 1860 census. At the time, they had in their household four children – Mary, John, Julia, and baby George who at the time was the second youngest black resident in the city at age 2 months. John was listed as a laborer from Kentucky. Wife Sarah did not provide her state of birth, but I later discovered she was also from Kentucky.
Some digging into this family produced a source from the University of Kentucky Library system called the “Notable Kentucky African American Database.” Within this link was information about the ancestry of a woman named Hazel THOMPSON GOMEZ who was the granddaughter of John and Sara DENT. It states that John DENT escaped slavery by riding his horse into Ohio.
I was very excited to find this information that provided a link to one of our early black residents escaping bondage and finding freedom in our area. I looked up the book from which this information was taken, which is titled “In Darkness with God: The Life of Joseph Gomez, a Bishop of the AME Church,” by A. L. Gomez-Jefferson – a great granddaughter of John and Sarah DENT. The book related John’s escape as follows:
Her maternal grandfather was John DENT, a former slave born in Paducah, Kentucky. He had escaped from slavery by simply jumping on his master’s horse and “riding like hell” to freedom. For a while he settled in Ripley, Ohio, where in 1849 he married Sara Jane GRUBB, a young woman of African parentage who had been born in Sterling, Kentucky. The couple moved first to Columbus, Ohio and then to Toledo. Julia Ann, Hazel’s mother, was born in March of 1858, one of their twelve children.
A review of available source material showed that John DENT was living in Wayne, Fayette County, Ohio on the 1850 Census so he probably escaped slavery in the 1840s. He was enumerated in the household of a woman named Sarah SMITH who also had Kentucky as her state of birth. Due to this Census document, I believe that Sarah SMITH was the grandmother of John DENT’s wife – Sarah Jane GRUBBS. This is due to the fact that also within Sarah SMITH’s household was a couple named John M and Emily GRUBBS and their children who were close in age to Sarah. Them having the maiden name of Sarah as their surname and the other GRUBBS youths being close in age to Sarah, lead me to believe that Sarah Jane was the daughter of John M and Emily GRUBBS.
John DENT and Sarah Jane GRUBBS were actually married in Wayne County, Ohio in 1849, not Ripley, as stated above. Ripley, Ohio was a known town with significant Underground Railroad activity and activists, so John DENT may have received assistance there and lived there prior to going an hour north to Wayne. In 1850 a new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in the United States which required state governments and citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves so they could be returned to their owners and re-enslaved. This law caused a lot of panic amongst black families both formerly enslaved and those who had long been free. Black families during this era moved to what they considered safer areas when they could to avoid being re-captured and sent into slavery or to avoid being kidnapped and made a slave when they had never been before. It seems the DENT family also fled southern Ohio after 1850 per the book noted above. They eventually settled in NW Ohio, which was a safer distance away from slave catchers.
As stated above, by 1860, the DENT family lived in NW Ohio, in Oregon specifically. They were enumerated numerous times between 1860 and 1910 in the city. John DENT died on May 10, 1890. His death record said that he died of a concussion suffered via a fall. He was listed as being 80 years old on the death register, but due to his headstone shown below and other census documents, he was probably in his late 60s or early 70s as he was consistently labeled as being born between 1820 and 1833. The document said he had been a resident of Toledo about 50 years at the time of his death and that he lived on “Bridge” street in the 6th Ward of the city.
A review of the book noted above provided a sad account of the death of John DENT. The wife of Joseph GOMEZ, of which the book details his life (and is a great read for anyone interested in early black civil rights leaders) was named Hazel. She was the daughter of John and Sara DENT’s daughter Julia Anne by her second husband George THOMPSON, a man who apparently looked white and was of mixed race ancestry (European and Polynesian descent). Hazel THOMPSON was light skinned and received some cruel treatment from Sara DENT due to Sara’s personal prejudices against whites/people who were light skinned based on her experiences with whites and the circumstances of her husband’s death. Page 39 of the text highlighted above, stated:
Ironically, Julia’s father, John DENT, died from a concussion received when he was thrown down a flight of steps by some Polish men during a racial incident. After that, Julia Anne and her four children went to live with his widow Sara, who made life miserable for Hazel because she was of light skin. Sara had no use for “yeller niggers,” and that included her granddaughter, who had the “blood of the men who killed her husband.”
I have been slowly going through early City of Toledo death registers and have noticed a little more than a handful of black men who had been labeled as being “found drowned” or who were labeled as being “murdered.” It made me wonder about the racial atmosphere in the city during the 19th century in the city and how it probably was much worse than what I had initially thought for black residents.
The text also highlighted the limited opportunities for employment that blacks faced nationwide in this era, whereas Julia DENT made sure to send her daughter to Wilberforce University in Ohio so that she would at least have an opportunity to be a teacher and not live as a domestic all her life. Black women in America have a history of always having high employment rates due to the precarious economic situation of black families. Both husbands and wives usually worked and helped support the family. Both genders were limited due to their ethnicity – men were usually general laborers and performed the most difficult and dangerous jobs for less pay than white men in many cases. Black women, including Julia DENT, were usually domestic workers – maids, cooks, or washer women (doing laundry) and both men and women worked long hours. Julia told her daughter, per the text, after Hazel came home from Wilberforce after only a week with homesickness that Hazel would have to go back because Julia wanted to ensure that :
“she could get an education and not have to work in somebody’s kitchen all her life.”
Julia Dent – Early Black Toledoan, mother of Hazel THOMPSON GOMEZ
Though John DENT’s death was and is tragic, it is heartening to me that he lived the majority of his life free, and not as a slave. He took ownership of his life and endured tough circumstances in regards to race prejudice and even a tragic death, but succeeded in raising a large family in the city. I’ve seen many obituaries of the DENT family in the Toledo Blade through even the 2000s and feel that there are probably still a significant amount of descendants of this family in Toledo. Hopefully they are aware of the story of John and Sara DENT and take great strength and pride from the hard work and suffering of their early black Toledo ancestors who endured such tough times to give them an opportunity to better themselves today.
Will end with the fact that I am related to the DENT family by marriage through a 4th great aunt – Martha JONES DENT who married John DENT Jr., the brother of Julia DENT shown above. So I was enriched by learning more about their lives while researching the family’s history.
“In Darkness with God: The Life of Joseph Gomez, a Bishop of the AME Church,” Annetta Louise Gomez-Jefferson
1850 Census – Household of Sarah SMITH (includes GRUBBS and DENT families) accessed via familysearch.org 9/13/2017
1860 Census – Household of John DENT accessed via familysearch.org 9/13/2017
1870 Census – Household of John DENT accessed via familysearch.org 9/13/2017
1880 Census – Household of John DENT accessed via familysearch.org 9/13/2017
1900 Census – Household of Julia DENT THOMPSON accessed via familysearch.org 9/13/2017
1910 Census – Household of Tena DENT ALEXANDER accessed via familysearch.org 9/13/2017
Death Record of John DENT died 10 May 1890 – Ohio County Death Records 1840-2001 accessed via familysearch.org 9/13/2017
Photo of Julia Dent – accessed via ancestry.com public images 9/11/2017
Cemetery Photo of grave of John DENT – Find-a-Grave – Forrest Cemetery, Toledo, Ohio – accessed 9/11/2017