INDIANAPOLIS — We are continuing to honor Black History Month by sharing stories about Indiana’s Black history.
We’re going back to the pioneer days, the early 1800s, when African Americans traveled to Indiana, searching for freedoms promised to them in the Old Northwest Territorial Constitution of 1787.
“It was supposed to an area of freedom because after all it was up north and there was supposed to be no slavery or indentured servitude in that area,” said Eunice Trotter, a semi-retired journalist and author.
Instead, they found they were still enslaved until a woman made her case known in the Indiana Supreme Court. That woman was Trotter’s third-great grandmother, Mary Bateman Clark. She came from Kentucky in 1814 with her master. While she was free at first, she was later indentured into servitude.
“Make no mistake: it was no different than slavery. They were subjected to the same rules as slaves, they lived in the same communities of slaves, they were chastised and controlled as slaves. They were slaves,” Trotter said.
Clark wouldn’t stand for it. So, in 1816 she filed a lawsuit in a Knox County Circuit Court to be freed once again. She was denied and forced to return to her duties as an indentured servant.
“But then the case was immediately appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court and that’s where she won the judgment,” Trotter said.
Two hundred years later, Trotter is sharing her ancestor’s story in her book Black In Indiana. Trotter writes that the ruling in 1821 set a precedent for the freedom of others fleeing north by way of the Underground Railroad.
The Slippery Noodle Inn in downtown Indianapolis was a safe passage along the route that housed many runaway slaves from North Carolina.
“As a result of these increasing freedoms that Black people had at that time, vigilante organizations were set up like the [Ku Klux] Klan,” Trotter said.
Group like the Klan and other vigilantes orchestrated violent attacks on Black people in southern Indiana near Vincennes, which was also known as the New York City of Indiana at the time.
“There were many cases where communities would be attacked by these groups of gangsters–mobsters who decided that they did not want their presence there,” Trotter said.
That’s when settlements became a safe haven for African Americans starting in 1814 like the Lick Creek Settlement in Orange County featured at the Indiana State Museum.
These were communities with farmland, churches, post offices and opportunities. With the help of Quakers, it was just what Black people needed to make them feel they were more than slaves.
“All of us today stand on the shoulders of the people who came here before us. And the people who came here in the 1830s obviously endured a lot of hardships coming from North Carolina to Indiana. It wasn’t an easy journey–it wasn’t easy when they got here,” said Bryan Glover.
We met Glover while on the snowy, sacred grounds of the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, one of the few that remain nearly 200 years later. Glover is the third-great grandchild of one of the founders, Elijah Roberts, who died in 1848.
“There’s a lot of history here. My family’s history, but it’s the history, I think, that belongs to everyone,” Glover said.
Glover unlocked the swelled doors of the hollow chapel where freed slaves once praised, and history remains preserved more than 100 years later.
“In 2023 we still celebrate our 100th consecutive family reunion here at Roberts Settlement and that means a lot,” Glover said.
Places like the Roberts Settlement made a way for African Americans who sought opportunities beyond freedom like education, employment and wealth.
At the Indiana State Museum, you’re reminded of the progress made, like the opening of Crispus Attucks High School, the only school for Black students in Indianapolis.
“The victory not only from the basketball team but the victory in the classroom and the wonderful opportunities that were made at this school that helped,” said Kisha Tandy, curator of social history at the Indiana State Museum.
The stories of Indiana’s Black pioneers became more than a gateway to freedom after a daring trek on the Underground Railroad. Instead, their journey paved the road to a true American dream.
“They instilled in us an ethic of working hard, getting an education, and giving back to the community,” Glover said. “So, I think it’s important that we recognize that. And celebrate what they’ve accomplished and try to do whatever we can to carry it forward.”