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.
After the Civil War, there was an 11-year period called Reconstruction. (I seldom use Wikipedia as a reference source, but if you’d like to know about this period, there is some decent information there.) The purpose of Reconstruction was to restore the South to some degree of “normalcy” while, at the same time, protecting the interests of 4,000,000 ex-slaves with their first taste of freedom from their masters’ norm. Would you like to guess it didn’t work? If so, you’re right.
Within a year after the Reconstruction Era, those same 4,000,000 ex-slaves were flooding out of the South into cities elsewhere. In many cases, they had barely the clothes on their backs, clothes unfit for the harsher, colder weather they’d find in northern cities. In Chicago, for example, they were ridiculed and called “short coats.”
Still, they came. As to Indiana, the 1982 Indiana Humanities Council photo essay I am using as an outline for this series says “the largest number [of blacks] settled in Indianapolis. ... Evansville is the only southern Indiana city with a sizable African-American population.”
Of course, blacks settled in smaller Indiana cities including Anderson, Fort Wayne, Muncie and, honestly, anywhere they could find a job. Then you have what was once known as the steel city, Gary, which is predominantly black, Wherever they went, blacks lived in almost totally segregated communities. The black response was to create their own parallel institutions.
And so, according to the essay mentioned earlier, there emerged the Prince Hall Masonic Order; Elks, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias as separate units of white fraternal groups; and the United Brothers of Friendship. Just about all of these groups had women’s auxiliaries. In addition, early on blacks had begun to publish their own newspapers (e.g., the Gary Sun, the Indianapolis Freeman, and the Indianapolis Recorder.)
Moreover, though it seems odd, segregated black communities appear to have been a lot more cohesive than they are today. Black businesses flourished. Neighborhood schools, though typically under-funded and under-equipped, enjoyed some of the best, brightest teachers in schools anywhere. The simple reason is that teaching was one of the few professions open to blacks.
I’ll pick up on this next time. In particular, I’ll be taking a quick look at the centrality of the black church in community life, blacks in politics, and blacks in the popular culture. Until then ...
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.