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  • Writer's pictureTyeal Howell

From Shackles to Stature: The Unveiled Legacy of the Douglass-Hamlet Dynasty - Pioneers, Politicians

The Hamlet Douglass family plot in Oak Dale Cemetery
The Hamlet Douglass family plot in Oak Dale Cemetery

Section 3 in Oak Dale Cemetery in Urbana appears largely void of burials, but many gravesites are unmarked with a few exceptions. Among them is the towering marble monument shared by members of the Douglass and Hamlet families whose stories are intertwined. The Douglass family came to Urbana following the Civil War after being separated and scattered during the time of slavery. Their family journey began in Kentucky and led to Nashville, Tennessee as the family struggled to reunite following the Emancipation Proclamation.

Eventually, the entire family found their way to Urbana by the early 1860s and began to forge their new life as freed men and women. The Douglass family would also emerge as early entrepreneurs in the city and lay the foundation for generationally Black owned barbershops starting with James C. Douglass. Other Douglass family members would follow him into the barber business with its long-time location being on Monument Square. James also operated a barber shop on the riverboat steamer Robert E. Lee and drowned in the waters of the Mississippi River in 1878. Although at the time, the local media reported that James’s death may have been indirectly the result of “bull dozing” A period term that meant Blacks were often subjected to violent acts to suppress their newfound voting rights and freedom in the South through violence. Something the Douglass and Hamlet families knew all too well and experienced firsthand.

In addition to the Douglass name on the monument in Section 3 is Jane Mahala Hamlet whose daughter Adorillia Victoria Hamlet married James C. Douglass. The Ohio 1850 census shows George Hamlet Senior as having been born in England and as a musician. Coincidentally the same year, a George and Jane Hamlet are shown living on a steamboat in St. Louis in the Missouri Census. There George Sr. is listed as a barber and Jane a maid. Both are identified as “mulatto”. Adorillia Hamlet was born in St. Louis about the same time.

George Byron Hamlet circa.
George Byron Hamlet circa.

By 1860, George Hamlet Senior is no longer listed locally, but his wife, daughter Adorilla and son George Byron Hamlet Jr. are found in Urbana. George Jr. was born in the city. In 1852 The entire family was listed as mulatto and it would cause a sort of identity crisis for George Junior as he aged, and his career took twists and turns including the strife of the South during Reconstruction. George Hamlet Jr’s political star was rising, and he went to Louisiana to insert himself into early Civil Rights and where members of his Douglass family were as well. While in Louisiana, George Jr. would become the first African American Mayor of Monroe, Louisiana, and the Sheriff of the parish where it is located just to the north of New Orleans. He also served in the Louisiana State Senate. Hamlet’s time in Louisiana and his political positions often caused him to be thrust into the throngs of angry mobs and clashes of turmoil, but he maintained order and was often armed to do so. He worked to bridge the divide in the new South, but it was a very difficult time and he eventually returned to Ohio.

1897 and an 1878 advertisement for George Hamlet’s grocery store on North Main Street in downtown Urbana
1877 and an 1878 advertisement for George Hamlet’s grocery store on North Main Street in downtown Urbana

George returned to Urbana by 1877 and opened a grocery store on North Main Street. He had married and began to raise a family on Hill Street. Around 1880, George received a political appointment to be a guard at the Ohio Penitentiary and moved to Columbus. From there, he caught the eye of Ohio political leaders that led to Washington D.C. There he would become the first African American Chief Postal Inspector in the nation in 1897. By this time, to preserve his position in society and his politically connected employment, George Hamlet, his second wife, and children began to identify themselves as white in the census records going forward. He also listed his parents as both natives of England, but that was not accurate. His mother Jane was a native of Kentucky and may have been a former slave. George’s secret was revealed in Ohio media, but he would go on to have a long and storied career with the federal government working in the Treasury, Customs and Justice Departments before his retirement. He died in 1926 and is buried in Fort Lincoln Cemetery adjacent to Washington D.C. on the Maryland side. His mother, sister, and some of his Douglass in-laws, nieces and nephew are buried in Oak Dale Cemetery in Urbana on the joint family plot in Section 3.

-John Bry

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