Preserving a heritage
Communities across Indiana are digging in to uncover the almost forgotten
histories of the state's earliest black settlers
By Eunice Trotter and Robert King
MADISON, Ind. -- Awash in Greek Revival architecture, steamboat-era culture and Irish-German heritage, the history of this Ohio River city is so well preserved that 133 blocks of Madison are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But it took the tragic demolition of one historic church and the miraculous rediscovery of another to awaken this town of history buffs to a dramatic realization: Middle-class blacks lived here before the Civil War and were active participants in the Underground Railroad.
Dating to 1820, when Abe Lincoln was still a boy living downstream in southwestern Indiana, a black enclave in Madison bustled with three churches, a livery stable, a barbershop, a store, a Masonic lodge and stately brick homes.
"It was a working-class neighborhood," said John Staicer, executive director of Historic Madison Inc., a nonprofit group working to preserve the history of Georgetown, as the neighborhood was called.
Across Indiana, there were more than 80 of these pre-Civil War black communities -- often in areas more rural than Madison. But theirs is a part of Hoosier history that schoolchildren read nothing about because little of it has been written. And there is still much to be uncovered.
Sue Livers knows this all too well.
Having grown up in Madison, she heard stories from her grandmother about ancestors who brought freedom seekers across the frozen Ohio River on foot. She remembers her mother pointing out buildings that were once black churches, and homes that once belonged to blacks.
"At that point in time I was just a kid," said Livers, now 55. "That didn't mean anything."
Even as an adult, when she started taking an interest in history, Livers assumed these buildings always would stand -- and their history would stand with them.
But in 1996 a little brick building once home to St. Paul's Second Baptist Church -- a black congregation on the fringe of the Georgetown neighborhood -- was bulldozed.
"At first I died," said Livers, who as a girl attended a church sprung from the original St. Paul's congregation.
As painful as that was, the loss prompted Livers and others in Madison to get busy taking inventory of their black history. The great reward was the discovery in 1999 of a Fifth Street building, circa 1849, that had served as an African Methodist Episcopal church whose founders were in the thick of the Underground Railroad.
Historic Madison bought the property in 2001. Now that the organization has raised more than $460,000 through state and federal grants, restoration of the church -- with its Greek temple facade, creek rock foundation and whitewashed plaster -- will begin in the next few weeks.
With the guidance of a historian at a nearby landmark -- Eleutherian College, an Underground Railroad station and early educator of blacks in America -- the story of Georgetown is proving more dramatic than anything in Madison's past.
Through old property records, yellowed newspaper clippings and tidbits sent from afar by private citizens, evidence has been found of riots in Georgetown that were a direct result of Southern whites and pro-slavery sympathizers trying to shut down the Underground Railroad.
There is the story of William J. Anderson, who founded and may have built the AME church, who was born free, forced into slavery and liberated after jumping off an Ohio River steamboat.
There are documented stories of Underground Railroad activists -- among the nation's first practitioners of civil disobedience -- having their homes raided in search of fugitive hiding places. And a harrowing story of how one black resident was dragged down to the Ohio and dunked in its waters repeatedly in an effort to get him to cough up his contacts.
But Madison historians say they have only begun to peel back the layers.
"All this is just being put together," said Jae Breitweiser, president of the board of Historic Eleutherian College Inc. and the key figure in putting together the story. "That's what's so fun about this."
On that front, Madison may be far ahead of the rest of Indiana in reclaiming the history of pre-Civil War black settlements and neighborhoods that once dotted the state.
Census figures from 1850 show there were about 11,000 blacks in Indiana -- free blacks, indentured black servants, slaves and fugitives.
Some of the black settlements had as few as 30 to 40 people. Georgetown probably had fewer than 150 people. But others had hundreds of people and were self-sustaining communities, said Rodney Lomax of the Indiana State Museum.
These settlements included Snow Hill in Randolph County, Blue River in Washington County, and -- near Madison in Jefferson County -- Graysville, Greenbriar and South Hanover.
The frontier community of Vincennes, more widely known for its French fur traders and their American Indian friends, was home to a black neighborhood called Idaho on the Wabash River that had the largest black population in Indiana during the first half of the 19th century.
Like Madison's Georgetown, it had a school and an array of businesses, churches and fraternal organizations. But the only modern sign of the area's black roots is a marker on the grave of a single black Revolutionary War hero.
"There's really not been much done at all, and it's too bad. It's a story that needs to be told," said Richard Day, cultural administrator for Vincennes State Historic Sites. "The history of blacks in Indiana begins here."
It arrived with the expeditions of French explorers such as Robert Cavalier de La Salle who brought blacks with them as servants or in supporting roles, said E.J. Fabyan, chairman of the history department at Vincennes University.
Many of the blacks spoke French. Some lived in rural areas such as Maria Creek, in a cherry orchard north of Vincennes. The largest number lived in Vincennes, where one of the earliest black churches in the state -- Bethel AME -- was founded at the corner of 10th and Buntin streets, according to historians.
The church's founders in 1839 included Aaron Knight, Cornelias Simms and Samuel Clark, who took care of the horses for Indiana's first territorial governor, William Henry Harrison -- a native Virginian who owned slaves.
The property where Bethel once stood now is owned by Vincennes native Robert Blackburn, 74, and his wife, Rosalie, 69. They said an old church and two houses stood on the property until they were torn down about 15 or 20 years ago and apartments were built in their place.
Blackburn said he knew that blacks always had lived in the neighborhood -- at least until recently. He remembers an all-black school there. But no one expressed concern about saving the property. "I could not remodel the church," he said, "and the houses were just beat up and falling apart."
Bethel's history is detailed in a manuscript written in 1890 by William H. Stewart, father of George P. Stewart, co-founder of the black weekly newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder.
Such manuscripts are rare, said Dona Stokes-Lucas, who co-chairs the Indiana Freedom Trails, a statewide group that is part of a national drive to document historic sites in black settlements.
"Black history was (seen as) irrelevant. It was a very dark period of our history," she said. "Whites think it reflects on them today, so they feel guilty, they feel shame and they don't write about it. And blacks feel pain and don't. But I think it is the responsibility of blacks to write their own history, starting with their own family history."
Indiana University historian James H. Madison said historians have -- for the past 25 years -- done a much better job of chronicling black heritage. But that hasn't always been the case.
"I think until 25 years ago most history was the history of white America," Madison said. "When you start to tell the story of race in America, you have to start to tell a story that is not about all goodness and light and justice and truth."
Madison said the black settlements need further study, but enough is known to give at least "some sense of the whole cloth."
But historians agree that some of Indiana's black history is forever lost -- records have disappeared or have been destroyed. Old-timers with the oral history have died without their stories being recorded.
The pace of research has picked up since 1998, when President Bill Clinton signed a law that established a national effort to save the story of the Underground Railroad. It also provided grant money to make it happen.
Federal and state money is paying for the excavation of a Paoli-area black settlement in the Hoosier National Forest. Digs have taken place on the cabin site of black pioneer Elias Roberts, a North Carolinian who came to Lick Creek before the Civil War.
That site is in an area adjacent to a settlement of Quakers, who held strong anti-slavery views and occasionally were involved in aiding escaped slaves. As such, some of the heaviest concentrations of black settlements were in the Quaker counties of Wayne, Randolph and Henry, Madison writes in his book "The Indiana Way."
Two previous excavations at the Lick Creek site during the past four years turned up buttons, broken dishes, canning jars and part of an old harmonica. "Exactly what you expect for a pioneer cabin site," said Bill Wepler, who is leading the dig for the Indiana State Museum.
"This is the first excavation in Indiana of a rural African-American community," Wepler said. There have been other surveys: a visual in Randolph County and a dig in Ransom Place in Downtown Indianapolis.
Restoration work has been done on a black school in Evansville, a black church in Hanover, the Lyles Station settlement in Gibson County and the Roberts settlement in Hamilton County.
Wilma Gibbs Moore, senior archivist of African-American history at the Indiana Historical Society, said significant discoveries are waiting to be made. "I don't think it's too late," she said.
A new look at the past
That is the hope of people in Madison, as they try to mine this rich new vein of the past that Georgetown represents. And restoring the AME church -- which was converted into duplex apartments in the 1940s -- is a top priority.
Already, the discovery of the neighborhood's roots as a black middle-class enclave is forcing some residents to rethink their history.
Tony Cosby, 58, a Madison resident most of his life, stopped by a white-owned liquor store to buy a lottery ticket in a building that -- before the Civil War -- was a business owned by blacks.
His impression of the neighborhood is much different from the historical record: He remembers it as the white neighborhood where blacks -- who had moved to another neighborhood after the riots -- didn't go.
"When I was growing up, this was, I wouldn't say off-limits, but it was whites against the blacks, and we had our little wars and battles and so forth," Cosby said. "We didn't go in this neighborhood, and they didn't go in ours."
Soon, the restored AME church, which will serve as a museum and an interpretive center, will force Madisonians -- black and white -- to revise their thinking about the neighborhood.
"That's why it is so important that we tell it," said Livers, the longtime Madison resident now working on the preservation efforts. "How do you take pride in something that you know nothing about?"
If you want to help
People interested in helping to document the history of blacks in Indiana can contact the following organizations:
• Indiana Freedom Trails, volunteers who document Underground Railroad sites. Call Dona Stokes-Lucas, (317) 264-1866, or Maxine Brown, (812) 284-8314.
• Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana African American Landmarks Committee. Call Bill Wiggins, (812) 855-3874.
• Indiana State Museum. Call Bill Wepler, (317) 232-8178, who is leading archaeological digs in black settlements.
• Freetown Village, Ophelia Wellington, director, (317) 631-1870.
• Indiana State Museum, Kisha Tandy, assistant curator, (317) 234-1729.
• Indiana Historical Society, Wilma Gibbs-Moore, (317) 234-0049.
Call Star reporter Robert King at (317) 444-6089.