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Kentucky by Heart: Former slave, Ky. native Wheeling Gaunt defied the odds with an unrelenting work ethic

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Though making no claims of being a bona fide Kentucky historian, I enjoy researching and discovering people from the state’s past that aren’t particularly well-known, yet have inspirational stories that cry out to be shared.

(Photo from Wheeling Gaunt Facebook page)

I recently came across an account of Wheeling Gaunt, a man born in 1813 into abject poverty in Carrollton. He was termed, at the time, a “mulatto” (born of one white parent and one black parent) and was a slave of John Gaunt, a local attorney in Carrollton. Wheeling possessed an iron-clad spirit, demonstrated in a couple of different ways; his amazing, positive influence rings true today, long after his death in 1894.

First of all, he was an overcomer of human bondage and eventually became rich because of his unrelenting work ethic and business acumen. That became possible after John Gaunt allowed him to earn his freedom. Besides doing his regular chores as a slave, Wheeling picked apples and signed shoes. After John Gaunt died, Wheeling found himself willed to John’s wife, but on May 5, 1845, he received his freedom with the payment of an emancipation bond of $500.

Two years later, Wheeling bought a house and two lots in Carrollton. He soon manifested the second aspect of his iron-clad spirit; that of being a generous and compassionate person. He also purchased a slave from M.D. Smith for $200 and the contract stipulated that the slave would become a free man when reaching the age of 21. Interestingly, there is some thought that the boy was Wheeling’s own son. He also purchased his wife, Amanda, also a slave for the sum of $500 and emancipated her before the 1850 census.

Wheeling bought more pieces of real estate in Carrollton as he became more prosperous. In 1860, he sold them and moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. The reason? According to the sources mentioned below, “historians in Ohio speculate that he may have heard about Moncure Conway’s emancipated slave colony at Yellow Springs, founded in 1862, or he may have followed Bishop Daniel A. Payne to Wilberforce College.”

(Photo from Wheeling Gaunt Facebook page)(Click for Larger image)

However, there is another possibility, this one with a strong link to Kentucky, according to the same sources. “The most famous Underground Railroad conductor between Louisville and Cincinnati, Elijah Anderson, would have known Wheeling Gaunt very well, since it was Anderson who established the Carrollton and Kentucky River route for escaping slaves.”

Ironically, the 1870 census identified Wheeling as a “day laborer,” though he held assets worth $4,000 in real estate and $6,000 personal property—a huge sum of money at the time. He profitably bought and sold town lots near Antioch College between 1864 and 1890. His residence was a two-story Greek Revival house he built, along with four cottages he called “Gaunt cottages.” By all accounts, he was a rich man.

He was also a giving man.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

An advocate for black citizens’ education though he received no formal education of his own, Wheeling donated a house and property to Wilberforce College, a noted black school in Wiberforce. Ohio, and in 1884, gave $5,000 them and their Payne Theological Seminary.

Back in Yellow Springs, he donated more property to the community and the financial source of Christmas gifts to the poor, with the stipulation that the income be used to distribute 25 pounds of flour to Yellow Springs’ widows at Christmas. In the 1950s, the amount was decreased but the tradition has continued for more than a century. He was also was a great giver to his church, Central Chapel, donating a bell, the vestibule, and the belfry.

His wife Amanda died in 1889 and Wheeling provided an ornate tombstone in the local Yellow Springs cemetery. He remarried and willed his second wife $7,000 at his death, and he bequeathed the rest of his property holdings to Wilberforce College and the seminary there.

According to the encyclopedia sources mentioned below, on the occasion of his death, “both blacks and whites from Wilberforce, Springfield, Xenia, and Yellow Springs, Ohio, packed the church and lined the funeral possession for Wheeling Gaunt, the former Carroll County, Kentucky, slave.”

There is a splendid Facebook page honoring Wheeling Gaunt, supplying much more background than I’ve offered in this column.

I’d recommend visiting the site. You’ll feel the modern day appreciation for his life through the posts and information supplied. For sure, Wheeling Gaunt made a difference in Kentucky and beyond, and he is starting to be recognized for his contributions.


The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (University Press of Kentucky, 2015); The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); Notable Kentucky African Americans Database; Wheeling Gaunt Facebook page

This article originally appeared at NKyTribune on May

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