Billingsley pens book on Gaunt’s time here

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By Phyllis McLaughlin

Some of the main players in the building of the state of Kentucky – from its grand homes and plantations to its early economy – have gone unrecognized, and former District Court Judge Stan Billingsley is looking to change that.

In his latest book, “The Widows of Highland Avenue,” Billingsley weaves a tale that focuses on Wheeling Gaunt, born into slavery to prominent merchant Alfred Gaunt in Carroll County about 1812, the same year his white half-brother, John, was born.

Billinglsey will be on hand to sign purchased copies of his book from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1, at Maguana’s Unique Gifts & Decor, at the corner of Main and Court streets.

One of the central characters in the book is Wheeling Gaunt, who, in his early 30s, found paying jobs here and there and was able to save enough money to buy freedom for himself, his wife and another brother – from his half-brother, John F. Gaunt.

The “widows” mentioned in the title are women who lived in the mansions along Highland Avenue – then called High Street – who secretly helped slaves escape via the Underground Railroad.

Gaunt is believed to have also been involved with that complex and dangerous network, which was very active in Carroll County and other towns on either side of the Ohio River.

The book weaves history with fictional characters, who are based on composites of actual people living here during that period, Billingsley said. Portions of the book detail the work of people who helped slaves escape across the Ohio River,as well as the actions of one of the county’s biggest “scoundrels,” George N. Sanders (of Grass Hills). There is speculation that he was involved in the infamous robbery of the Old Southern Bank in Carrollton during the Civil War and that he helped in planning the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865.

Sometime after acquiring his freedom, Gaunt moved his family to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the free North. There, he worked hard and invested his money in land and other enterprises, including helping to found Wilberforce College.

He was always generous with his wealth and is memorialized by Yellow Springs historians for his philanthropy. Upon his death in 1894, Gaunt bequeathed nine acres of his extensive landholdings to the city of Yellow Springs, which was turned into a park. The catch: Every Christmas, the city was to deliver flour to “every needy widow” living there, according to an article published in the Xenia (Ohio) Gazette, May 15, 1894.

It’s a tradition that continues to this day and has been expanded to include deliveries of sugar, as well, Billingsley said,

In the book, Billingsley disputes what he calls the “Magnolia Myth” that African Americans were better off enslaved and that, given a preference, they would prefer slavery to freedom.

Billingsley argues that, if this myth were true, why would slaves risk everything to attempt to  escape and why, after slavery was abolished during the Civil War, did so few of the approximately 1,800 blacks listed in the 1860 census as living in Carroll County leave almost immediately?

As many as 1,300 blacks living here left “very quickly” after the war, Billingsley said.

Over the course of time since the Civil War, “Cities in the south have mostly ignored the contributions of slaves to the civilization of Kentucky, the west and the south,” Billingsley writes in the prologue. “Rebel secessionists are honored by memorials, statues and road-sign markers. ... It is time that the myth of the romance of their ‘Romantic Lost Cause’ be examined through the lives of the people who lived in this era. It is now time that history should begin to honor those who carved this Commonwealth from the wilderness under the lash of their slave owners.”

It is this myth Billingsley hopes to dispell while he brings Gaunt’s story to the people of the county where Gaunt was born – and, he hopes, beyond.

Billingsley said his first goal is to ensure that the proper recognition is given to Gaunt, whose headstone in Yellow Springs bears information only about his wife, Anna, who died in 1889 and is buried there. The stone only bears Gaunt’s initials.

For whatever reason, “His name was never etched into the stone,” Billingsley said.

To correct this, Billingsley plans to donate $900 from the sale of the book to complete Gaunt’s headstone. He already has contracted with a monument company in Xenia to have the work done.

In addition to Maguana’s, the book also is on sale in Carrollton at Welch’s Riverside Restaurant on Main Street and at Carrollton Office Supply on Fifth Street.