The Herald Bulletin

February 11, 2014

Primus Mootry: Black Hoosier history: the city dwellers


The Herald Bulletin

---- — This is the second in a 4-part Black History Month series examining the triumphs and struggles of African Americans in the state of Indiana. Today, however briefly, I’ll look at the movement of blacks from their once thriving 18th and 19th century farms to various Indiana cities in the context of what generally was happening with blacks in this country.

In the interest of providing some of that contextual, I begin with something of a diversion from the main subject. Many years ago, in a place not too far from here, a young ex-slave (a runaway) came to speak on behalf of his millions of enslaved brethren in the southern states. This former illiterate slave turned fiery orator was named Frederick Douglass.

At the request of white abolitionist sympathizers, Douglass came to Pendleton. Barely had he set foot on the platform they had built for him when he was beset and nearly killed by an angry, hateful mob. Badly shaken and seriously injured, Douglass was unable to speak that day. Under the care and protection of those who invited him, however, the great young man found the strength and courage to speak the next.

At the time of this event, in 1843, black Hoosiers had been successful farmers for nearly a hundred years. Some were freemen, some were former slaves who had escaped bondage in the South. The more they thrived, however, the more anti-black sentiment increased.

By the mid-1840s and a few decades beyond, through legal, illegal, and outright terroristic means, they were driven from their cherished farmland. Today, in the places they settled in and cultivated, there are few reminders they ever existed.

Against a faceless, ubiquitous array of anti-black systemic forces (governmental, political, economic, and social), as they were pushed out of their farmlands and communities, in increasing numbers blacks began to push back by re-settling in Indiana’s growing cities. Their numbers were increased by blacks fleeing the post-Civil War South and the lure of jobs in a society changing from rural to industrial.

You know, you can pass laws. You can even amend the U.S. Constitution. These things can be done in a relatively short period of time, with the stroke of a pen. But you cannot legislate what is in a man’s heart. And deeply embedded in the heart of America — North, South, East, or West — was the idea, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that blacks were shiftless, lazy, violent, crime-prone “takers.” In this regard, public consciousness in Indiana was not much different than any other northern state.

This point is well made in the 1982 Indiana Humanities Council photo essay that I am using as an outline for this series. “A pattern of all-black or predominantly black neighborhoods developed early, and as their numbers grew larger and larger there were concentrations of blacks. White property owners and real estate interests resorted to legal and extra-legal methods to prevent blacks from moving into previously all-white neighborhoods. Blacks were usually shut off from buying new houses or renting desirable apartments.”

Again, this pattern was commonplace throughout America’s northern cities. What the Humanities Council essay does not make clear, though, is that in these overcrowded neighborhoods, basic city services were cut, public schools were inferior, streets and sidewalks went unrepaired, residents were denied all but the most menial jobs, and police patrols increased. It was as though a silent war had been declared against blacks and, fresh from the South or rural settings, they didn’t even know it.

In spite of this, as the Humanities Council essay states, “within the African-American community institutions developed which are the counterparts if those in the white community but distinct from them. Underlying all black community institutions is the black family, which has survived seemingly overwhelming obstacles in slavery and freedom and has been a source of strength and pride.”

The essay continues: “Families relied on the church for stability and, in turn, strengthened the churches. Parents, at great sacrifice to themselves, encouraged children to go to school and secure an education which they believed would set them free.” In short, they pushed back, not with anger, but with achievement.

I must close here, but the Humanities Council report, “This Far By Faith: Black Hoosier Heritage,” is full of examples of how blacks not only found a way to survive but, at a very dear price, a way to thrive.

More next week.

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.