Since February is Black History month, I thought it would be interesting to research some of the African-American history in Indiana County. Starting this research back in December, I did not realize how difficult it would be to find information about notable African-Americans in Indiana County (it seems not much was written about these early figures), which somewhat surprised me knowing that Indiana County and the surrounding area was part of the Underground Railroad. I came across the same stories of Dr. Robert Mitchell and his trial against Van Meter, for harboring “fugitive slaves,” especially one by the name of Anthony Hollingsworth. But I knew there had to be others.
While searching, I came across a series of articles written by Clarence Stephenson in the 1970s and 1980s, one such article was about a gentleman by the name of Samuel Williams. So I did some more digging, and it turns out an article in the Indiana Evening Gazette in 1944 told of how Stephen Foster was inspired to write some of his songs because of Samuel Williams.
Sam’s story begins on a Kentucky plantation, as a slave. Among the slaves on the plantation was Nellie Gray, a friend of Sam, who was sold to a Louisiana plantation owner. Sam missed his friend and went to Louisiana and stole her from her new owner and brought her back to the Kentucky plantation. However, the Louisiana plantation owner came back to claim Nellie and took her back to Louisiana. Sam was severely beat for his actions, resulting in making him blind in one eye.
Sam again stole Nellie and brought her back to Kentucky, but after this she was never heard from again, my best guess would be that she was again returned to Louisiana. This left a sorrow in Sam’s heart.
Sam ran away from Kentucky and arrived in Armagh where he met with Judge Thomas White, father of Harry White. Judge White was involved in aiding the slaves and giving them shelter and food and hiding them until it was safe to go further along on their journey. One hiding place was the Old Stone house on the White property.
When Sam came to Indiana, he took two women with him, and swam the Potomac river with them on his back. He decided to locate in Indiana and worked for various families. He married Sidney Harvey, an Indiana-born African-American.
Sam was employed by Attorney William Stewart. This is where Stephen Foster enters the story.
Foster visited the home of Attorney Stewart, several times a year, as he was related to Mrs. Stewart. While on his visits to Indiana, Stephen Foster often times heard Sam Williams singing his ballads as he worked. Sam had a beautiful voice, which was known around the community, and a gift of composing the music and words as he sang.
One of Sam’s songs was that of his long lost love, Nellie Gray. Another of a pet dog named “Tray,” which was left behind on the Kentucky plantation and another of Jeannie with the Dark Brown Hair. Foster became so inspired with the voice and words that he wrote the music and arranged the songs “Darling Nellie Gray,” “Old Dog Tray,” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.”
Samuel Williams died on November 26, 1879, shortly afterward the following tribute was printed in the Indiana Progress on December 4, 1874:
As Shakespear says of one of his characters, “Alas, poor Yorkick! I knew him well.” So now may the town of Indiana say of her colored friend, Sam Willias. Alas, poor Samuel! We knew him well. An escaped slave from the sunny South, he dwelt for many years among us. An African of the blackest visage, of crispest curliest locks, his face was to one and all of us familiar. A fellow of queer, odd merriment and joke, he provoked us oft to laughter. A being of iron, sinewy frame, he performed for us many menial offices, carried for us many heavy burdens. A negro whose voice of powerful, yet soft, sweet melody, we have all so often heard, sometimes in the early morning, sometimes in the stilly night, waking the sleeping echoes among the hills that lie all about our beautiful town, we all remember. As the young, the bright, the beautiful; as the honored, the brave, the gifted, as the statesman, the orator, the here, have lain down and died, so too has died on of the town characters – the queer, odd character – Sam. Spring time shall come again with bending skies of blue, with bursting flowers, with tender grass blades, with the singing of birds and the rippling laugh of little children, but never again shall come our right hand man – Black Sam.
Stable doors shall swing idly in the gentle breeze; curry combs in corners lie neglected, unused; steeds untended, stand and neigh for the voice, for the touch of their keeper, while inn keepers talk lowly together as to where they can find one to fill to them the place of him who has gone forever. As every stone, however rough, fills a needed place in the finished palace; as every drop, however little, helps swell the mighty ocean; so every man, however lowly, fills his own place in life; so Sam in our community occupied his own particular niche; and we hold that a word of kindness, a word of farewell is fitting as we turn on our heel from the grave of the negro saying, “Rest in Peace.”
Samuel Williams was laid to rest in the Oakland Cemetery.