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February 07, 2023

Noblesville’s First African Americans In Law Enforcement

By David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian


Police officer Charlie Jones standing with another officer talking with a man in a vehicle.

Candid photo of police officer Charles Jones

As part of Black History Month, I would like to look at two individuals who represent two important eras in Noblesville’s race relations – the post-Civil War reconstruction era and the twentieth-century Civil Rights era. It’s important to examine these stories in context, particularly since they were separated by a troubled era in the county’s history.

The two individuals are Noblesville’s first African American Justice of the Peace, Willis Venable (ca. 1810-30 – 1901), and first African American police officer, Charles “Charlie” Jones (1938-2022).

Justice of the Peace Willis Venable

Willis Venable possibly came from an enslaved background, although there have been no direct statements by him that have been found. His true birthdate is unknown, and records of his age vary wildly (In 1863, his age was recorded as 34 years old, in 1870 – 49, 1880 – 53, 1900 – 75, 1901 – 90). However, his birthplace is listed consistently as Kentucky. He first appears in Indianapolis in the 1863 draft registration, where he was listed as a farmer and unmarried. He is in the 1865 and 1867 Indianapolis city directories as a laborer at 251 E. St. Clair Street. In the 1870 census, he is living in Noblesville with his wife Agnes and several family members and working as a farmer.

He then moved to Fishers, possibly just after it was founded in 1872. His time there was marked by discouraging events and may suggest community animosity. In 1874, he was planning to move his family to a new house. However, the new house was burned down by an arsonist before they had a chance to move. Venable and his sons were twice falsely accused of theft, but both cases were thrown out of court. He eventually moved back to Noblesville.

Newspaper clipping showing Willis Venable writing about the Civil Rights bill in the Noblesville Ledger from May 26, 1875

Willis Venable writing about the Civil Rights bill in the Noblesville Ledger from May 26, 1875

Perhaps because of his experiences, he became involved in politics and unhesitatingly wrote to the local newspapers, including a letter supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He rose in politics and was a delegate to the state Republican convention in 1876. Most importantly, he was elected Justice of the Peace in 1888. He presided over many different kinds of cases, including ones with white participants. After his election, the newspapers always referred to him as “Squire,” which was a respectful title for judges.

He continued to write letters to the papers. He objected to an occurrence in Elwood in 1891 when Black construction workers from Noblesville were threatened and refused housing during a construction project. Venable died in 1901 and his obituary managed to be both respectful and condescending at the same time. It referred to him as both “Squire Venable” and “Uncle Willis.” However, a good incident came out of this. Venable was in a difficult financial position when he died, and his wife had to mortgage their house to pay the burial expenses. Captain John Stevenson, a veteran of the Mexican War and Civil War, organized a fundraising campaign that paid off the debt.

Venable died before the rise of the Klan and the era of segregation in the twentieth century. Within two decades after his death, a Black judge in Hamilton County would have been an impossibility. It would take nearly fifty years for changes to happen, which can be seen by the election of Murphy White and the creation of the Human Rights Commission in 1968.

Police Officer Charles Jones

Official headshot of Charles Jones in his police uniform

Charles ‘Charlie’ Jones

It was at this time that Charles Jones appeared. He was an Air Force veteran who had moved from Indianapolis to Noblesville in the early 1960s. Jones moved to Noblesville to marry his first wife, Constance Jones, a Noblesville native. Her paternal grandmother’s family had established roots in Noblesville in the 1800s, moving north from the Lost Creek Settlement in Vigo County.

Charles Jones, who was known universally and affectionately as “Charlie,” first worked at the casting plant on the south end of town. He became an auxiliary policeman for two years and was appointed to the Noblesville Police Department in December of 1970. Interestingly, he was on duty during an April 1973 Klan march in downtown Noblesville (This was a group that had come up from Indianapolis for some reason). Jones served in a variety of roles and rose in rank, officially retiring in 1997. He then came back to serve for a time as the Community Service Officer.

Although it took quite a bit of time and changing attitudes, Hamilton County proved that it was capable of having African Americans in positions of authority.

1976 Noblesville Police Department group photo

1976 Noblesville Police Department group photo

Thanks to Regina Mack for photos, information, and input.