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As a black child growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Fort Wayne, Timothy Lake suspected there had to be more to Hoosier history than many history books let on.
Now, the 50-year-old associate professor at Wabash College in Crawfordsville knows how much more.
For the last five years, Lake and about 20 student researchers – armed with still and video cameras, tape recorders, notebooks and plenty of patience – have been documenting landmarks related to Indiana’s black history. They’ve compiled a database that has swelled to about 400 listings and traces the presence of blacks from the time Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory to the present.
“We would go looking for cultural artifacts – buildings, neighborhoods, streets, parks, monuments, churches, graveyards and even things that only locals know – that a certain site is where a historical event took place. We looked at folklore,” says Lake, whose field is American cultural studies but who teaches in the college’s English department.
“We ended up producing the largest treasure trove of African-American history in Indiana.”
Even before Indiana became a state in 1816, Lake says, blacks lived here. The 1810 census, for example, shows 630 listed as “Negroes” among not quite 24,000 whites.
And blacks weren’t just concentrated in one region or in cities such as Indianapolis. Many early settlements followed the Wabash River in Knox and Gibson counties, he says. But, he adds: “There are early settlement communities all around the state.”
Often, early blacks settled alongside white pioneers, who had brought their slaves, indentured servants or freed blacks with them, Lake says. The 1810 census reveals about 60 percent of blacks then were indentured servants or slaves.
“In Kosciusko County, for example, you see evidence in diaries and histories of such-and-such a family who had an African-American or Negro person living with them,” Lake says.
Indiana entered the Union as a free state, but those who entered as slaves remained so for many years, he says. But some free blacks acquired land and became farmers, and some early settlements bore the names of black families – the Weaver Settlement in Grant County, Lyles Station in Gibson County, Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County and Bassett Settlement in Howard County.
Members of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, Lake says, were instrumental early on in settling blacks.
For example, one early settlement, Lick Creek in Orange County, which has undergone archaeological excavation, was established in 1817 by blacks who accompanied a Quaker opposed to slavery who migrated after its institutionalization in North Carolina.
“Quakers were willing to sell land to blacks,” Lake says. “When Indiana law required blacks to pay $500 in order to settle in the state, there were plenty of Quakers who paid for them.”
One early black settler acquired land in an unusual way, Lake says.
Andrew Ferguson was a veteran of the American Revolution, pressed by his master into fighting for the British before running away to the American side in Virginia. By the 1820s, he was in Indiana.
When the federal government decided to award land to Revolutionary War veterans, Ferguson received a grant in Monroe County. But he died at 90, heirless and without taking possession, so the land reverted to the government.
“Indiana University (in Bloomington) now sits there,” Lake says. “I like to tell that story.”
Two of the most notorious incidents in the state’s black history took place in the 1850s in Richmond and Pendleton, Lake says.
A Quaker group invited black abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass to speak in Richmond. The orator was pelted with rocks and potatoes while onstage; a few days later, in Pendleton, whites stormed the platform and assaulted him. He suffered a broken arm and later said he was in fear for his life.
“Basically, you almost had the headline, ‘Frederick Douglass murdered in Indiana,’ ” Lake says.
A marker in a park in Pendleton notes the event.
“But not a lot of people know about it,” he adds. “It’s not a big pilgrimage spot.”
Another piece of Indiana infamy has gone unmarked.
In 1930, three black men accused of killing a white man and assaulting a white woman were dragged from their jail cells to the courthouse square in Marion in Grant County.
Two were lynched; an iconic photograph of them hanging from a tree was made of the event, said to be the last of its kind in northern states.
The tree is gone, Lake says, but the research documented the courtyard. James H. Madison, a retired history professor at Indiana University and expert on the lynching, says erecting a marker has been divisive in the community for years.
But many other Indiana sites note blacks’ accomplishments – schools, libraries and other public buildings have been named for prominent residents.
Lake cites two in Fort Wayne – a statue of John Nuckols, the city’s first black city councilman, in a park that bears his name near the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard, Maumee Avenue and Harmar Street; and the Helen P. Brown Natatorium at South Side High School.
Nuckols was among leaders who welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his brief visit to Fort Wayne. Lake says Nuckols’ bust is the only statue of a black Hoosier in a public park in Indiana.
The natatorium, named for a school board member influential in the desegregation era, is the only sports facility in Indiana to be named for a black woman, Lake says.
Some black landmarks have been preserved. The Maria Creek Baptist Church in Knox County, the first black church in Indiana and organized in 1809, was disassembled and rebuilt on the campus of Vincennes University, where it is still used as a chapel.
And, one early black cemetery in what was known as Little Africa or Paddy’s Garden remains as part of the Hoosier National Forest in Orange County.
But Lake says other sites have been lost and don’t appear in the database.
“We know Sojourner Truth spoke in Angola, but we don’t know the place,” he says.
The former slave, living then in Michigan, also spoke somewhere in Silver Lake, he says. Her talks resulted in two criminal trials in and near Angola – at the time, the state constitution banned blacks from entering Indiana.
She apparently won both cases.
The database also does not include Underground Railroad sites that were owned by whites.
Lake received an $80,000 grant through the Lilly Endowment to conduct his research. Significant spots were found in 53 of the state’s 92 counties, he says.
The next step, he says, is putting the data online. Lake also is submitting a book proposal to Indiana University Press.
A graduate of Ball State University, Lake received master’s degrees from Howard University and the University of Notre Dame and his doctorate from Bowling Green University.
The son of the late Jesse Abernathy of Fort Wayne and Queen Dunbar, now of Lafayette, he is an alumnus of Snider High School.
Lake and his wife, Carmon, split time between residences in Fort Wayne and Crawfordsville.
Lake says without work such as his, more history might be lost. He tells the story of one black resident uncovered during research in Vigo County.
A black man named Roy Bell lived from 1892 to 1986 near Terre Haute on a hill known by a racial slur.
“We only know about this because in our investigation we ran across articles where the city council was talking about changing the street name in the 1980s. We went out and found the place and found his grave site and everything,” Lake says.
Where he lived “is now the home of white residents,” he adds. “They don’t even know the history.”