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February 23, 2017

Olivia Roper – Community Leader

Olivia Roper – Community Leader

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Although the community leaders that are covered in these posts about African American history tend to be male, there were women who were also prominent and had an impact.  One of these women was Olivia Roper.

The Roper family was probably a group of former slaves who moved to Indiana.  The patriarch, Greenberry (1828-1906), was originally from Kentucky.  Interestingly, he may have had a relative in Marion County named David Roper.  David was a farmer, originally from Kentucky, who enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War.  He was one of the men killed in the assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863, which was later portrayed in the movie Glory.  Although Greenberry apparently didn’t serve during the war, he was very civic-minded.  He helped to organize a political rally for Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential campaign in 1872.  He was also appointed to the county Petit Jury in 1880.  Of his nine children, the son born in 1860 was named Abraham Lincoln and the son born in 1866 was named Grant.

Roper 1922Greenberry’s primary occupation was that of a barber.  It’s not known whether he owned his own shop, but his sons certainly did.  His eldest son, also named Greenberry, and two other sons named John and David ran a barber shop on 8th Street.  David (1856-1945) continued to be a barber when he moved into a building at 347 & 357 S. 8th Street sometime before 1920.

David’s first wife had died in 1917 and on December 24, 1919, he married Olivia Banks.  She was 44, having been born on April 8, 1875, and it was probably a second marriage for her as well.  She ran a boarding house in the 357 building which evidently attracted a variety of people. One of her boarders in 1920 was a South African emigrant named Albert Molief.  Interestingly, his language is listed as Basotho. (Other documents suggest that his name may have actually been Alfred Molefe.)

In the early 1920’s, David Roper decided to open a grocery store in his building.  It’s important to note that this happened at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was a dominant power in Indiana.  It’s not known if he did this simply because he had the opportunity or if it was a response to rising racial tensions.  Whatever the reason, the store became an important part of the community.  Along with continuing to run the boarding house, Olivia ran the grocery when David became ill in later years.

Roper LoftsIndianapolis Recorder, November 15, 1930:
“Who’s who in Noblesville: Mrs. Olivia Roper, one of the town’s leading business ladies, operates the only Negro grocery in Noblesville.  She is chairman of the Colored Woman’s Republican club and an active member and worker of Bethel A.M.E. church.”

Olivia’s name appears often in newspaper accounts of civic activities.  In 1936, she was an important guest at a dinner given for the pastor of the A.M.E. church, and seated at table with Barney Stone and other community leaders.  In 1939, she was treasurer of the church and had semi-monthly meetings with the Trustees.  She didn’t neglect the store during this time.

Indianapolis Recorder, May 29, 1943:
“The D. M. Roper grocery has made some fine improvements and have a stepped-up patronage.”

In 1944, the store hired Eunice Lena Avery who, in later years as Eunice Collins, would work for the Hamilton East Public Library.  David died in 1945 and Olivia died in 1947.  Among other things, her obituary noted that despite her business career, she was “one of the most active political women workers among her race in the county” and that she “found time to give much attention to Republican politics”.