This is the first of a four-part Black History Month series briefly examining the history of African Americans in Indiana. Before I begin, however, I believe it is worth pointing out several realities about the study of history in general.
First, it is impossible to understand history without taking into account the overall cultural context, i.e., human conditions, of the period under consideration. That means, from time to time, in order to understand what was happening with Indiana’s first black settlers, I may briefly veer into larger national and even international realities of the time. For the most part, though, I’ll try to stay on track.
Second, it seems that underneath every pebble of historical fact that are winding catacombs — manmade burial grounds — of human tragedy and triumph; and third, for both these reasons, anecdotal accounts of human history are by definition misleading.
Accordingly, in my view, the proper study of history forever raises challenging new questions of who, what, when, how — and of greatest importance — why.
With these thoughts in mind, through rudimentary research, I found that there was a smattering of free blacks in Indiana territory in the early part of the 18th century. The greatest influx did not begin until much later, around 1750. As a non-slaveholding state, Indiana was particularly attractive to blacks from Kentucky. Larger numbers of slaves escaping from North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi soon found their way into the state.
According to a study conducted by the Indiana Humanities Council, “This Far By Faith: Black Hoosier Heritage,” “They came in search of better economic fortunes and to escape the threat[s] of slavery. ... “To protect their precarious status, black pioneers often settled near groups of Quakers. Opposed to slavery, the Friends as a whole were more accepting of black settlers than almost any other group of whites; and, as such, they served as an important buffer.”
Early black farm settlements thrived. In addition to enjoying unimagined financial success, according to the Humanities report, “the records of each black settlement indicate that the institutions of religion and education were valued highly. Churches [mostly African American Episcopal or Baptist] and schools were both literally and figuratively built at the center of the community.” In short, like any non-black immigrant group, they were decent, hardworking people in search of freedom and opportunity. So what happened?
As the raw number of blacks in Indiana increased conditions began to deteriorate. This was not due to any changes from within black settlements, but to increasing anti-black sentiment in Indiana and throughout the country. An Indiana Historical Bureau reported: “With the ever increasing numbers of blacks moving north in the early 1800s, ... whites were afraid of being outnumbered by blacks. Also, as land became scarce, whites resented black landowners. Laws [were passed] to insure that blacks remained in their subordinate position in white society.”
Land? How much land? According to reports, through their own industriousness, black Hoosiers owned hundreds of thousands of acres by the mid-19th century. Laws? They could not vote, send their children to public schools, testify in court, or serve in the militia. In 1851, the Indiana legislature passed a law forbidding further migration of blacks to this state. A year earlier, the U.S. Congress’ Fugitive Slave Act ensuring that runaway slaves, wherever caught, would be returned to slavery.
These laws and similar ones were common. One such Indiana law required that every black pay $1,000 to settle in the state and that they carry passes to prove they had done so. ($1,000 back then would be about $50,000 today!) Obviously, such laws had a devastating effect on black Hoosier settlements. This fact, plus the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, rendered black rural settlements extinct.
In spite of all of this, blacks continued to fight for their right to live and work in Indiana and, more importantly, show that they were good citizens and patriots. They and many white supporters fought, not with firearms, but with faith, peaceful assembly, and the determination to change unjust laws. In short, these early black settlers and others fought to help America fulfill its promise toward “a more perfect union.” That fight, though different in many ways, is still going on.
I’ve barely turned a pebble here, but for those who are interested, “Black Hoosiers” are good keywords to begin with. Until next week ...
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.