Pioneering Black Family that Settled Hilliard-Area in 1830s Honored with Renaming of Park
A pioneering Black family that settled west of Columbus before the end of slavery is rediscovered and honored.
Over the years, Evonne Merchant Grant overheard stories at cookouts and gatherings about her family’s origins in Ohio, but information grew scattered and scarce as family members aged, passed away or moved across the country. In 2009, Merchant Grant used tidbits of oral stories about the Merchant family as a starting point to begin researching her family’s history. Using Ancestry.com, she began stitching together the family’s history—which turned out to be Ohio history.
The Merchant family is believed to be the first Black family to purchase land and settle in the area now known as Hilliard. A park located near Heritage Rail Trail in Old Hilliard was renamed Merchant Park in 2020 to honor the family of prominent farmers, business owners, clergy and educators who have lived throughout Ohio for nearly two centuries. Merchant Park will be officially dedicated Oct. 16.
Born in the late 1700s, Yammer Merchant, Merchant Grant’s great-great-grandfather, was freed from slavery in Virginia upon his owner’s death. Bequeathed with his freedom, according to Merchant Grant, plus $200 and a horse, Yammer migrated to Ohio along with his wife, Tabitha, and their five children, settling in what is now Brookfield Village. Census records state that Yammer paid $300 for his land in 1835.
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Merchant Grant, a 65-year-old retired health care professional, says it is worth noting that her ancestor was a free, Black landowner almost 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, Merchant family members matriculated and taught at Wilberforce and Central State universities and Oberlin College, some of the few institutions of higher education where Black students and teachers were welcomed. Born in 1840, Rev. John C. Merchant, Merchant Grant’s great-great-uncle, was one of several Merchant family members who played an active role in the Central Ohio African Methodist Episcopal Church. Merchant Grant discovered a second cousin, Curtis “Cyclone” Ross, born in Columbus in 1905, who was a top race car driver in the 1940s but died in a crash in 1949.
“It was a privilege and an honor to be around my family to receive all that information. I was just like a sponge,” says Merchant Grant, who grew up in Columbus and currently lives in Westerville.
Recognizing the family’s forgotten significance was important to the city of Hillard, especially as civil unrest due to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 resurrected the importance of amplifying Black history.
“When we were considering an appropriate name for this park in the heart of Old Hilliard, we began considering the important role Black families had played in the early history of our community,” says Hilliard city manager Michelle Crandall. “For so long, communities have overlooked the contributions of families like the Merchants.”
Hilliard city officials connected with Columbus civil rights attorney John Waddy Jr., Merchant Grant’s cousin, to validate much of the information she’d been collecting for the Merchant Park renaming. Waddy, who is currently researching how and why the family land was sold over the years, is proud of what his ancestors achieved.
“The most important thing is understanding that there was a great deal of success straight out of slavery,” Waddy says. “I’m sure coming out of the time period, certainly every obstacle was thrown in their way, and yet they still achieved and succeeded.”
Merchant Grant, too, would love to know what kinds of obstacles and prejudice her ancestors overcame. “It is just bittersweet, because there’s no telling how our family was treated,” she says.
She has invited relatives from across the country, some of whom she met through Ancestry.com, to the park dedication in October. She is preparing to pass down the information she’s collected to her son and other family members.
“We’re the elders now. We’re the ones who have to pass the baton,” she says.
Merchant Grant’s son, John Lloyd Merchant-Smith, says his goal is to build upon his mother’s research and possibly turn the Merchant story into a film or documentary.
“It’s definitely a great legacy to pass on,” Merchant-Smith says. “Stories like these are being told more. Especially when it’s your own family, if you have the skills, you have to tell that story. Our history is not something that should die with one person.”
This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.