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February 19, 2014

Primus Mootry: Hoosier black history -- inside the melting pot

This is the third in four-part series on black Hoosier history. This time the focus moves beyond a relative handful of blacks re-settling from 18th century farmland communities to far larger numbers becoming a part of America’s great cities, primarily North, Northeast and West. These larger numbers were in search of any place outside of the oppressive South they came from.

America is often called “the Great Melting Pot.” That idea, with whatever difficulties we know about, has applied to literally every European group seeking a better life here: Scottish, Irish, Polish, German, Russian, and so forth. To be sure, each of these ethnic groups has had its struggles but, over time, those struggles disappeared in the melting pot ideal that is warp and woof of America’s promise. The exact words are on the Statue of Liberty.

But the African American, in spite of his presence in this land since the early 1600s, did not melt. In this, essentially because of the color of his skin and his branding as somehow other than fully human, the African American is totally unique in American history and perhaps the history of civilization itself. As far as I am able to tell, that is the sad truth.

It is with this truth that African Americans, or blacks, were forced from their thriving, early Indiana (Northwest Territory) farm communities into mid- and late 1800s cities. During this latter period, in my judgment, there were two major gamechangers. The first was the Civil War and an end to slavery. The second was the era that extended from World War I to roughly 1970. It’s known as “The Great Migration.”

About 200,000 African Americans fought as Union solidiers in the Civil War. Early in the war, in spite of disagreements as to whether or not it should be done, Indiana organized the all-black 28th regiment. Although some blacks did fight for the Confederacy (go figure!), the great majority felt they were fighting not only to preserve the Union, but for their own freedom. They fought to end slavery.

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