Descendants of enslaved woman fight to reclaim land

Published 1:46 pm Friday, February 24, 2023

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VANDALIA — Arnwine Drive is a short road nestled next to picturesque Paradise Lake in Vandalia.

The street is named after Zebedee “Zeb” Arnwine, an African American business owner who lived in Vandalia from 1943 to 1957. What many may not know is that Zeb was a descendant of a Texas slave owner and a slave, and that his family today is fighting to right a centuries-old wrong. 

Candice Hammons, a descendant of Texas slave owner Albartis Arnwine and his slave Gracy Arnwine – as well as Zeb’s cousin – has organized a petition to seek justice for the Arnwine family, who was willed land by Albartis Arnwine but never received it. 

Hammons, a Detroit native who recently began delving into her family’s history, aims to return the land to her descendants and honor their memory.

“I said I think we should do something,” she said. “At least give them a proper burial. They didn’t have the money to fight and didn’t get land back.”

Hammons said Albartis left a will upon his death in 1855, which was contested by his white family in court, who questioned whether a slavemaster could legally free his slaves under the constitution and state statutes. The will was supposed to leave Hammons’ descendants money and the rest of his estate, located in Jacksonville, Texas. They never received anything.

In 1936, 84 year-old Stearlin Arnwine, Gracy’s grandson, told the story of what happened to the women Albartis owned. His story is recorded in the Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narratives.

Stearlin said Gracy, her sisters and their children were sold to another owner. The ruling wasn’t honored. 

“(Albartis) Arnwine died before the war and he made a will and it gave all (the property) he owned to the women he owned, and a judge promised him, on his deathbed, he would take us to the free country, but he didn’t,” Stearlin stated. “He took us to his place to work for him for about two years and the women never did get that 900 acres of land (Albartis) willed to them. I don’t know who got it, but they didn’t. I know I still have a share in that land, but it takes money to get it in court.”

To date, 582 people have signed the petition. Hammons said she has appreciated the support her family has received from people nationwide. 

“We have a lot of support,” she said. “A lot of support from people who don’t even know the families. I was in shock. I think we will have a lot of support for it. You have to be prepared for a lot of negativity but I think we can get something done. I’m pretty excited.”

A local connection

According to Hammons’ findings, Zeb Arnwine was born July 7, 1902 in Jacksonville, Texas, near the estate his family was owed. Zeb – Albartis’ grandson – was working as a farmer in 1917 when, at the age of 16, he claimed he was 18 and registered for World War I draft but was not drafted.

In the late 1930s, Zeb married an Ashkenazi Jewish woman named Rose Schwartz and the couple settled in Vandalia in 1943, where they owned 25 acres of land off Paradise Lake, which is now a subdivision of lakeside cottages on Arnwine Drive. The couple opened and operated Zeb’s Bar-B-Q in Vandalia for years.

“They were trying to find a place to live that invited interracial relationships,” she said. “That’s how they ended up in Vandalia.”

The couple divorced in 1957. Zeb moved to South Bend, then Indianapolis – opening BBQ restaurants in both cities – before moving to Chicago. Zeb passed away Nov. 6, 1975 at the age of 73 and is reportedly buried in an unmarked grave in Burr Oak Cemetery outside Chicago. Rose passed away in 1982. She is buried in an unmarked grave in Calvin Community Cemetery.