Indiana offers sites to learn about African American culture
By Glenda Winders // Photography submitted
Increasingly more communities in Indiana and across the country have come to realize that the African American experience doesn’t finish when February is over and Black History Month ends. They’re becoming aware of the rich stories about African American culture that have yet to be uncovered and told. To fill the gaps and complete the story of all Americans, Indiana is now making it possible to visit significant places and pay homage to the African American influencers of the past.
A good place to begin is in and around Indianapolis, since this is one of the northern cities where freed slaves moved to find a new life after the Civil War.
Even before that, in 1837, James Roberts came from North Carolina and bought land near Quakers and other accepting whites in Hamilton County’s Jackson Township. He invited other Black family members and friends to join him, and at the height of the settlement, it was home to some 400 people, but as farming became less popular and opportunities for other types of work arose, it declined. Today, it is still possible to visit the Roberts Chapel, which houses a mixed-race congregation and hosts a reunion of Roberts’ descendants each year. A stroll through the cemetery to remember and honor the legacy of people who persevered and made a better life for themselves is also worth the time.
Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in the United States, amassed her fortune by selling her hair-care products in the 1910s. The Walker Building, once the headquarters and manufacturing plant of Madam CJ Walker Hair Care and Beauty Products, is now the Madam Walker Legacy Center, which serves as a theatre and mini museum dedicated to her legacy. It also anchors the city’s African American Cultural District on Indiana Ave. where Samuel G. Smother opened the first Black-owned business in Indiana and where The Indianapolis Leader, the first Black-owned newspaper, was published. A mural commemorates music greats, such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, who once played in the clubs along the street. Local historian Sampson Levingston operates Through2Eyes Walk and Talk Tours in the district, telling stories about the city’s cultural past as he goes.
A former gymnasium at Crispus Attucks High School — named for the first hero to die in the Revolutionary War — is now the Crispus Attucks Museum, which contains four galleries and 38 exhibits relating to Black heritage. The school was once for Black students only, but today educates a multiracial student body. The facility is open to the public, but reservations are necessary.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Landmark for Peace Memorial cover some 14 acres of Indy’s Center Township. The monument depicts the civil rights leader and Robert F. Kennedy who came to Indianapolis to campaign at the park in 1968, but instead had to deliver the news that Dr. King had been killed. Months later, Kennedy would also be killed by the hands of an assassin. President Bill Clinton dedicated the memorial in 1995.
Freetown Village is a living history museum without walls, whose mission is to teach the public about African American lives, arts and culture in Indiana. Among other exhibits, visitors learn about the Colored Speedway Association, which created the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. This race was held on the dirt track at the state fairgrounds after Black drivers were told they could not participate in the 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Poet Mari Evans’s three-story mural, created by local artist Michael Jordan, is in the Mass Ave. Arts District and is located nearby a dedication to Marshall “Major” Taylor by Shawn Michael Warren, which celebrates the achievements of the champion cyclist and track star. The Major Taylor Velodrome, located near Marian University, opened for the hosting of the 1982 Olympics Festival and remains.
Until September 24, the Indianapolis Art Museum at Newfields has on exhibit “We. The Culture: Works by The Eighteen Art Collective,” which features works by 18 African American artists. And at the Indiana State Museum, the “Influencing Lincoln” exhibit will be up until October to display how the 19th century Black community fought for equal rights.
“The story of how leaders of the Black community, nationally and locally, worked with Lincoln and other leaders for emancipation and equal rights is not widely known,” said Susannah Koerber, chief curator and research officer for the museum. “In the exhibition, visitors can see how they used their personal connections and networks, the church and military service in the fight for freedom.”
But the state capital is not the only place where Black people made a difference in Indiana. One of the most significant spots is the Levi and Catharine Coffin House and Interpretive Center in Richmond. The Quaker Coffins assisted more than 1,000 freedom-seeking slaves enroute to Canada, and their home has come to be known as the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad. The History Channel has designated it as one of the top 25 historical sites in the country.
“Touring the Coffin House and Interpretive Center pulls at your heartstrings,” said Nancy Sartain, leisure marketing director at the Richmond-Wayne County Convention and Tourism Bureau. “Understanding the Underground Railroad movement — the pain and grit freedom-seekers endured, and how abolitionists placed God’s law above man-made laws — is emotionally moving.”
And that is but one stop on Richmond’s “Black History Trail.” Follow the trail to discover the home of abolitionist Samuel Charles, the Underground Railroad Mural and stops having to do with Gennett Records, the first company to record Black musicians when no one else would.
Muncie boasts a sculpture of Hurley C. Goodall by Indiana artist Bill Wolfe. Goodall was the city’s first African American firefighter, a civil rights leader and the county’s first Black state representative.
In Fort Wayne, a must-see heritage site is the African American Historical Museum. In this house-turned-museum, each room represents a different aspect of history, beginning when slave traders brought Africans to the United States and continuing to the present. Subjects range from an African village to African American inventors to the civil rights movement.
Two Bartholomew County residents, Paulette Roberts and Brenda Pitts, have put together an initiative that identifies a “Black Heritage Trail” in Columbus. Their informative walks and presentations visit spots where Black-owned businesses once stood. The Second Baptist Church had its first congregation formed in 1879 and is still open and conducting services.
“I think this work is important because it is like recovering history that was never taught in any form,” Roberts said. “We want everybody to understand we were viable for the community then and we still are today. We want them to understand that all lives are important, and each has a part in history.”
At the Freeman Army Airfield Museum in Seymour, what started out as an Eagle Scout project has resulted in two permanent statues that pay tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. One depicts an aviator in his flight gear to represent the defense of the nation and the other is in an officer’s uniform. At this former military airport, flight crew members participated in the “Freeman Field Mutiny” when they entered a whites-only club. This event helped contribute to the desegregation of the armed forces.
The Lick Creek Trail goes through the Hoosier National Forest in Orange County just outside Paoli. This was the site of the Lick Creek Settlement from 1831 to the end of the Civil War. A young, 22-year-old Matthew Thomas established the settlement when he bought 80 acres of land that was hilly and rugged but accommodated the homes of free Black people and their Quaker allies.
In New Albany, a sculpture of Lucy Higgs Nichols stands on the grounds of the Second Baptist Church. Higgs was a runaway slave who became a nurse for the Union Army and settled in Floyd County when the Civil War ended.
A good place to wind up a statewide tour of Black heritage destinations is at the Evansville African American Museum. Exhibits currently on display include: “The 1960 and 1961 Indiana Jazz Festival: A Crossroads for Evansville and Black Musicians,” “The Anti-Slavery League: Southern Indiana and the Underground Railroad,” “Baptisttown and Prohibition” and “Baptisttown Reimagined: The Three Renaissances of the Black Community.”