January 31, 2019

200 Years of African American History

200 Years of African American History

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

In the newest edition of the Hamilton County Business Magazine, I’ve done an article on a special anniversary – the bicentennial of the African American experience in Hamilton County. Many of the stories that I refer to in the article are ones that I’ve posted on this blog. I’m going to recap and link them here. They are all available at the “Highlights in History” archive on the library website.

As I pointed out in the Aug/Sep 2018 issue of the magazine, the Treaty of St. Mary’s was signed in October 1818 and opened this part of Indiana for settlement. In April of 1819, the first white settlers arrived in Hamilton County and were greeted by an African American fur trader who helped them to survive the first year. His story is here.

The fur trader was followed by ex-slave Thomas Murphy (1808-1881) in 1828. There are many stories in the county of people who arrived via the Underground Railroad, one of which I discussed here. The people who established Roberts Settlement and migrants looking for opportunities were also among the newcomers.  The African American settlers who came here established a presence that included churches.

There was also African American involvement in politics, such as an 1872 political rallyEmancipation Day celebrations, marching societies, and even running for office. African Americans from Hamilton County were soldiers like Charles Dempsey, and authors like Cyrus Colter. Notable members of the community had a lasting impact, and some of them, like Barney Stone and Nancy Roberts, had very long lives.

Nancy Roberts

Women were leaders in the local African American community. There were people like Eva Stewart – the first African American graduate of Noblesville High School, businesswoman Olivia Roper,  and Beatrice O’Niel and her effort to publish a newspaper. With Mae Walker, there is even a connection to Madame C. J. Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.

Race relations in the county have had high and low periods.  Despite some of the early successes, the county saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after 1900 and after the failure of the natural gas boom.  Hamilton County did convict the Grand Dragon of the KKK for murder in 1925, but racism and segregation was still an issue.  Some of the problems were from social attitudes that have survived to the present day. The Noblesville Diversity Coalition has now been created to try to deal with these attitudes.

Now would be good time to examine the history of race relations in the county. I will be doing a library program on February 18 in Fishers and February 27 in Noblesville called “The Forgotten First Settlers: African American Pioneers in Hamilton County”. Coincidentally, this year will be the 400th anniversary of a significant event in African American history in the United States, which was the first slaves arriving at Jamestown in 1619. Civic anniversaries are important times for reflection. African Americans have been an integral part of the political, economic, legal, religious, and social history of Hamilton County from the beginning to the present day. This year will be our chance to explore, discuss, and celebrate this.