The “Destruction of an Icon:” Wrestling with Complicated Legacies

Rev. Oscar McCulloch, courtesy of IU Newsroom; Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a researcher, few things are more disheartening than coming across that blemish on an otherwise inspiring legacy. But this happens more often than not, as human history is messy. Events and actors often occupy an ambiguous position between right and wrong, progressive and stagnant, heroic and indifferent. We wish the loose ends of the stories could be tied up into one neat moral, but often it’s more complex. In wrestling with this phenomenon, I concluded two things: that context is everything and that we must remember that the historical figures we idolize—and sometimes demonize—were, in fact, evolving humans. The visionary and controversial leadership of Indianapolis Rev. Oscar McCulloch and Gary, Indiana Rep. Katie Hall inspired these conclusions.

In the early 20th century, Oscar McCulloch’s misguided attempt to ease societal ills was utilized to strip Americans of their reproductive rights. Born in Fremont, Ohio in 1843, McCulloch studied at the Chicago Theological Seminary before assuming a pastorship at a church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He moved to Indianapolis in 1877 to serve as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, situated on Monument Circle. On the heels of economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1873, he implemented his Social Gospel mission. He sought to ease financial hardship by applying the biblical principles of generosity and altruism. To the capital city, Brent Ruswick stated in his Indiana Magazine of History article, McCulloch “brought a blend of social and theological liberalism and scientific enthusiasm to his work in Indianapolis.”[1] He also brought a deep sense of empathy for the impoverished and soon coordinated and founded the city’s charitable institutions, like the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, Flower Mission Society, and the Indianapolis Benevolent Society.

In 1878, McCulloch encountered the Ishmael family, living in abject poverty. He described them in his diary [2]:

composed of a man, half-blind, a woman, and two children, the woman’s sister and child, the man’s mother, blind, all in one room six feet square. . . . When found they had no coal, no food. Dirty, filthy because of no fire, no soap, no towels.

Disturbed by the encounter, McCulloch headed to the township trustee’s office to research the Indianapolis family, who lived on land known as “Dumptown” along the White River, as well as in predominantly African American areas like Indiana Avenue, Possum Hollow, Bucktown, and Sleigho.[3] He discovered that generations of Ishmaels had depended upon public relief. According to Ruswick, McCulloch came to believe that the Ishmaels, “suffering from the full gamut of social dysfunctions,” were not “worthy people suffering ordinary poverty but paupers living wanton and debased lives.”[4] Over the course of ten years, the pastor sought to discover why pauperism reoccurred generationally, examining 1,789 ancestors of the Ishmaels, beginning with their 1840 arrival in Indiana.

Pamphlet, “The Tribe of Ishmael: diagram,” 1888, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

The blemish. McCulloch’s nationally renowned 1888 “Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation” concluded that heredity and environment were responsible for social dependence.[5] He noted that the Ishmaels “so intermarried with others as to form a pauper ganglion of several hundreds,” that they were comprised of “murderers, a large number of illegitimacies and of prostitutes. They are generally diseased. The children die young.” In order to survive, the Ishmaels stole, begged, “gypsied” East and West, and relied on aid from almshouses, the Woman’s Reformatory, House of Refuge and the township. Assistance, he reasoned, only encouraged paupers like the Ishmaels to remain idle, to wander, and to propagate “similarly disposed children.” In fact, those benevolent souls who gave to “begging children and women with baskets,” he alleged, had a “vast sin to answer for.” McCulloch’s sentiment echoes modern arguments about who is entitled to public assistance.

In addition to revoking aid, McCulloch believed the drain on private and public resources in future generations could be stymied by removing biologically-doomed children from the environment of poverty. Ruswick noted that McCulloch, in the era of Darwin’s Natural Selection, believed “pauperism was so strongly rooted in a person’s biology that it could not be cured, once activated” and that charities should work to prevent paupers from either having or raising children. This line of thought foreshadowed Indiana’s late-1890s sterilization efforts and 1907 Eugenics Law. The Charity Organization Society, consulting McCulloch‘s “scientific proof,” decided to remove children from families with a history of pauperism and vagrancy, essentially trampling on human rights for the perceived good of society.

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1910s-1920s, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

But McCulloch had a change of heart. He began to rethink the causes of poverty, believing environmental and social factors were to blame rather than biological determinism. Ruswick notes that “Witnessing the rise of labor unrest in the mid-1880s, both within Indianapolis and nationwide, McCulloch began to issue calls for economic and social justice for all poor.* To the ire of many of his Indianapolis congregants, the pastor defended union demonstrations and pro-labor parties. He no longer traced poverty to DNA, but to an unjust socioeconomic system that locked generations in hardship. McCulloch believed that these hardships could be reversed through legislative reform and organized protest. To his dismay, McCulloch’s new ideology reportedly resulted in his church being “‘broken up.'”

In a nearly complete reversal of his stance on pauperism, McCulloch wrote a statement titled “The True Spirit of Charity Organization” in 1891, just prior to his death. He opined [6]:

I see no terrible army of pauperism, but a sorrowful crowd of men, women and children. I propose to speak of the spirit of charity organization. It is not a war against anybody. . . . It is the spirit of love entertaining this world with the eye of pity and the voice of hope. . . . It is, then, simply a question of organization, of the best method for method for the restoration of every one.

But after McCulloch’s death, Arthur H. Estabrook, a biologist at the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Research Office, repurposed McCulloch’s social study (notably lacking scientific methodology) into the scientific basis for eugenics. Historian Elsa F. Kramer wrote that Estabrook revised McCulloch’s “causal observations of individual feeblemindedness” into support for reforms that “included the institutionalization of adult vagrants, the prevention of any possibility of their future reproduction, and the segregation of their existing children—all to protect the integrity of well-born society’s germ-plasm.”[7] McCulloch had unwittingly provided a basis for preventing those with “inferior” genetics from having children in the name of improving the human race. Kramer notes that co-opting the Ishmael studies for this purpose reflected “the changing social context in which the notes were written.”[8] In fact, Estabrook resumed the Ishmael studies in 1915 because “of their perceived value to eugenic arguments on racial integrity.”[9]

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1921, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

McCulloch’s work influenced Charles B. Davenport’s report to the American Breeders Association and Dr. Harry C. Sharp’s “Indiana Plan,” an experimental program that utilized sterilization to curtail unwanted behaviors of imprisoned Indiana men. Sharp also promoted Indiana’s 1907 Eugenics Law, the first in the U.S., which authorized a forced sterilization program “to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists” in state institutions. Twelve states enacted similar laws by 1913 and approximately 2,500 Hoosiers were sterilized before the practice ceased in 1974.[10] Even though McCulloch moved away from his problematic beliefs, for decades they were utilized to rob Americans of the ability to have a family. His legacy proved to be out of his hands.

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

The complexities of African American Rep. Katie Hall’s legacy could not be more different. In 1983, Rep. Hall, built on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday. Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday, including musician Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow. But it was the Gary, Indiana leader who spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes and successfully led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

2018 birthday card by Emyha Brown, student at McCullough Girls School.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. In 1938, she was born in Mississippi, where Jim Crow laws barred her from voting. Hall moved her family to Gary in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Hall trained as a school teacher at Indiana University, and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Gary’s first Black Mayor, Richard Hatcher. She broke barriers herself when, in 1974, she became the first Black Hoosier to win a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Two years later, she ran for the Indiana Senate and won. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

The blemish. In 1987, voters elected Hall Gary city clerk, and it was in this position that her career became mired in scandal. In 2001, suspended city clerk employees alleged that Hall and her daughter and chief deputy, Junifer Hall, pressured them to donate to Katie’s political campaign or face termination. Dionna Drinkard and Charmaine Singleton said they were suspended after not selling tickets at a fundraiser for Hall’s reelection campaign. Although suspended, the Halls continued to list them as active employees, which meant Drinkard was unable to collect unemployment. The U.S. District Court charged the Halls with racketeering and perjury, as well as more than a dozen other charges. At trial, a federal grand jury heard testimony from employees who stated that the Halls forced them to sell candy and staff fundraisers to maintain employment. Allegedly, the Halls added pressure by scheduling fundraisers just before pay day. Investigators discovered cases of ghost-employment, noting that employees listed on the office’s 2002 budget included a former intern who was killed in 1999, a student who worked for the clerk part time one summer two years previously, and Indiana’s Miss Perfect Teen, who was listed as a “maintenance man.”

The Times (Munster), May 18, 2002, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Munster Times, the Halls alleged their arrest was racially motivated and their lawyers (one of whom was Katie’s husband, John) claimed that “the Halls only did what white politicians have done for decades.” Josie Collins countered in an editorial for the Times that “if they do the crime, they should do the time. This is not an issue of racial discrimination. It is an issue of illegal use of the taxpayers’ money.” Whether or not the Halls’ allegation held water, it is clear from phone recordings between Junifer and an employee, as well as the “parade of employees past and present” who testified against the Halls, that they broke the law.

In 2003, the Halls pled guilty to a federal mail fraud charge that they extorted thousands of dollars from employees. By doing so, their other charges were dropped. They also admitted to providing Katie’s other daughter, Jacqueline, with an income and benefits, despite the fact that she did not actually work for the city clerk. The Halls immediately resigned from office. In 2004, they seemed to resist taking accountability for their criminal actions and filed a countersuit, in which they claimed that Gary Mayor Scott King and the Common Council refused to provide them with a competent lawyer regarding “the office’s operation.” The Munster Times noted “The Halls said they wouldn’t have broken the law if the city of Gary had provided them sound advice.” Instead, they lost their jobs and claimed to suffer from “‘extreme mental stress, anxiety, depression, humiliation and embarrassment by the negative publication of over 500 news articles.'” For this, they asked the court to award them $21 million.

The Times (Munster), July 9, 2003, 112, accessed Newspapers.com.

The City of Gary deemed the Halls’ Hail Mary pass “frivolous,” and a “‘form of harassment,'” arguing that “the Halls had no one to blame for their troubles but themselves.” The countersuit was dismissed. Junifer served a 16-month sentence at the Pekin Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. Katie Hall was placed on probation for five years. According to the Munster Times, one observer at her trial noted:

‘We are seeing the destruction of an icon.’

Thus ended Katie Hall’s illustrious political career, in which she worked so hard to break racial barriers and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This leads to the perhaps unanswerable question: “Why?” Maybe in the early 2000s no one was immune from being swept into Gary’s notoriously corrupt political system. This system arose from the city’s segregated design, one which afforded white residents significantly more opportunities than Black residents. Possibly, the Halls sought to create their own advantages, at the expense of others. Either way, it is understandable that some Gary residents opposed the installation of a historical marker commemorating her life and work.

In many ways, McCulloch’s and Hall’s stories are not unique. It seems almost inevitable that with such prolific careers, one will make morally or ethically questionable decisions or at least be accused of doing so. Take African American physician Dr. Joseph Ward, who established a sanitarium in Indianapolis to treat Black patients after being barred from practicing in City Hospital. He forged professional opportunities for aspiring African American nurses in an era when Black women were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor. In 1924, Dr. Ward became the first African American commander of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91 at Tuskegee, Alabama. With his appointment, the hospital’s staff was composed entirely of Black personnel. Ward’s decision to accept the position was itself an act of bravery, coming on the heels of hostility from white residents, politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan. The blemish. In 1937, before a Federal grand jury he pled guilty to “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” The esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud” after over eleven years of service. However, African American newspapers attributed his fall from grace to political and racial factors. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.” Again, context comes into play when making sense of blemishes.

If nothing else, these complex legacies are compelling and tell us something about the period in which the figures lived. Much like our favorite fictional characters—Walter White, Don Draper, Daenerys Targaryen—controversial figures like Katie Hall and Oscar McCulloch captivate us not because they were perfect or aspirational, but because they took risks and were complex, flawed, and impactful.  They were human.

*Text italicized by the author.

SOURCES USED:

Katie Hall, Indiana History Blog.

Elsa F. Kramer, “Recasting the Tribe of Ishmael: The Role of Indianapolis’s Nineteeth-Century Poor in Twentieth Century Eugenics,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 54.

Origin of Dr. MLK Day Law historical marker notes.

Brent Ruswick, “The Measure of Worthiness: The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem, 1877-1891,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 9.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ruswick, 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Kramer, 54.

[4] Ruswick, 10.

[5] Oscar C. McCulloch, “The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation,” (1891), accessed Archive.org.

[6] Quotation from Ruswick, 31.

[7] Kramer, 39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] Learn more about the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law and Indiana Plan with IHB’s historical marker notes.

Race, Power, and the Ballot: Early Black Settlement in Sugar Creek Township

Every election elicits charges of voter fraud. During the 2016 general election, Republicans charged Democrats with importing out-of-state voters to swing New Hampshire. During the 2018 midterms, Democrats charged Republicans with disenfranchising African American senior citizens who needed rides to the polls. The courts can decide the individual cases, but the accusations show us that people have always been concerned about who is a legitimate voter, and therefore, citizen.

In 1880, the democratic newspaper of Lebanon, Boone County, published a ranting article accusing Republicans of voter fraud. The Lebanon Weekly Pioneer claimed that Republicans at the state level imported Black men from North Carolina to Boone County to win a legislative seat for the region. The charge was ludicrous. Black families had established a thriving farming community around Thorntown in the Sugar Creek Township of Boone County as early as the 1840s. But the article showed more than the prejudice of the local editor, who saw this community as “imported,” as “other,” and as not “real” or “true” Boone County voters. The article reflected the fear of the white, democratic newspaper’s audience. These white citizens were afraid of losing their sovereignty. Because whether or not the Pioneer considered Black Hoosiers to be “real” voters, the Black men of Boone County held real political power. [1]

“Rice and Gilliam Families ca 1926,” accessed Roberts Settlement Photos, http://www.robertssettlement.org/historical-photos.html

By the 1840s, patriarch Moody Gilliam moved his large family, described as “mulatto” by white census takers, from North Carolina to Boone County, Indiana. Other members of the Gilliam family had been prominent in the establishment of nearby Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County. This proximity to family and another black community certainly played an important part in the decision to settle and farm in Boone. The Gilliams owned at least $1000.00 worth of property by 1850 which they farmed and improved successfully. By 1860, Moody Gilliam’s property was estimated at $4000.00. This would be approximately $120,000 today, a solid foundation for a family facing unimaginable prejudice and legal discrimination. [2]

Registration certificate issued in Gibson County, Indiana to Gilly Ann Perry, Indiana State Library, Nelson Perry Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Though he was a well-to-do land owner by 1860, Moody Gilliam would not have been allowed to vote. Additionally, he may have been forced to register with county authorities and to post a $500 bond with the assumption that the county would someday be supporting him. In fact, Indiana residents made it clear that they did not even want him there at all. In 1851, Hoosiers voted for Article XIII of the Indiana Constitution that stated, “No negro or mulatto shall come into, or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” Despite racist legislation and prejudice, Black settlers established a successful farming community in Boone County concentrated in Sugar Creek Township near Thorntown.

By 1860, seventy-two Black Hoosiers lived in Sugar Creek Township with eleven based in Thorntown proper. The census from that year, shows us that they arrived mainly from North Carolina and Kentucky, that they were predominately farmers, and that most could not read and write. Many Black Southerners had been prohibited from obtaining an education as it was seen by white slave owners as a threat to the slavery system. The mainly illiterate founders of the Sugar Creek settlement, however, broke this systematic oppression by making sure their children could read and write.

By the late 1860s, Sugar Creek residents of color purchased land from local Quakers for the purpose of building a school, likely at the corner of Vine and Franklin Streets in Thorntown. Around the same time, they also purchased a lot to build an A.M.E. church at the west end of Bow Street. The church established a Sabbath school around 1869. Thus, the children Sugar Creek’s founders received a primary education as well as a spiritual one. By 1869, residents purchased more Quaker land to establish a “burying ground for the Colored people of Thorntown and vicinity.” It was clear that they planned on staying. [3]

Harper’s Weekly, March 18, 1865. Wood Engraving. Colonel Charles Fox Leading the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment into Charleston, S.C. when the City Surrenders to Union Forces on February 21, 1865 ,” accessed Black Past.

During the Civil War, at least one Sugar Creek son fought for the Union cause in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. It’s not clear when Elijah Derricks came to Sugar Creek, before or after the war, but he is buried in the “colored cemetery.” Derricks volunteered for service in 1863 when he was 38-years-old. His regiment saw a great deal of action in Florida and South Carolina.

“Elijah Derricks,” 55th Massachusetts Infantry, Misc. Cards, 1864, compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers, accessed Fold3, Ancestry Library.

All Civil War units struggled with causalities from disease and Derricks suffered several bouts of illness, but returned to his regiment each time. In November 1864, he was injured at the Battle of Honey Hill, a Union initiative designed to help Sherman’s March to the Sea. It’s not clear if Derricks’ injury took him out of action or if he remained with the regiment until it mustered out. If he did remain, he would have been present in 1865 when the 55th marched into a conquered Charleston, arriving “to the shouts and cheers of newly freed women, men, and children.”[4] Either way, Derricks carried his injury for life, as he collected a pension for his injured arm back at Sugar Creek. [5]

Plan of the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina, November 30th, 1864. Virginia Historical Society, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.ndlpcoop/gvhs01.vhs00181.

By the late 1860s, the Sugar Creek community also boasted a Masonic lodge. By 1874, they had seventy-four members and the Boone County Directory listed the group as: Washington Lodge F&AM (Colored). While not much is known about “the colored Masons of Thorntown,” their establishment of such a society shows us that they sought power through organization. However, the men of Sugar Creek also took more direct political action. [6] 

While the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave Black men in the North the right to vote in 1870, one newspaper article implied that some residents of color in Sugar Creek participated in local elections prior to this legislation. The Thorntown Argus reported in 1897 that after the well-liked and respected barber John Mitchell settled in Thorntown around 1864, “he was a delegate to the first Republican county convention held after his arrival and there were 47 colored voters in this township then”[7] The newspaper’s language is ambiguous, but seems to imply that they were voting in the 1860s before the amendment passed. [8]

James Sidney Hinton, 1880, Division of Manuscripts and Rare Books, Indiana State Library.

After officially gaining suffrage rights, however, the men of color in the community immediately joined the political efforts and causes of the time. On Saturday, August 10, 1870, they held a large “XVth Amendment celebration” at Thorntown. [9] One of the speakers that day was the James Sidney Hinton, a powerful orator and civil rights advocate who would become the first African American to serve in the Indiana General Assembly. There is no record of what the Republican leader said to the people of Thorntown the day they celebrated their enfranchisement. However, gleaning from a speech he made some years later on Independence Day, we can imagine he made similar remarks. Hinton stated on that occasion: “The forces of truth and the principles of liberty, born in the days of the revolution, and proclaimed in the Declaration of 1776 have placed the negro for the first time in his history on this continent in a position to realize that he is a man and an American citizen.” [10]

Thomas Kelly, “The Fifteenth Amendment,” 1870, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.34808/

In 1872, several prominent men of the Sugar Creek community founded a political organization. The Lebanon Patriot reported that “the colored men of Thorntown were organized into a Grant club at Thorntown” which hosted political speakers. [11] The Crawfordsville newspaper referred to it as the “Gran Wilson Club,” making clear that they were advocating for the Republican presidential ticket during the election season. [12] Despite the more blatantly racist policies of the Democratic Party at the time, not all Black residents of Sugar Creek were Republicans. In 1896, “Rev. Charley Derrickson of Thorntown, colored, 90 years of age, took part in several Bryan parades during the campaign.” [13] While this three time presidential candidate was never an advocate for Black citizens, perhaps the reverend found something he liked in William Jennings Bryan’s Protestant values.

By the late 1870s, local newspapers provided evidence of the power of the Black vote in the area. The Lebanon Pioneer described (and poked fun at) the candidates for local offices of Sherriff, County Recorder, and County Auditor. The newspaper implied that the candidates were Quakers and noted that only one of the candidates by the last name of Thistlethwait could “hold a solid negro vote.” The support of the Black vote, the newspaper concluded, was needed for Thistlethwait to win the election and was only possible for him if local resident of color, Harvey White, “sticks to him.” [14] The Pioneer was staunchly Democrat and often blatantly racist, so it is quite possible that these statements were meant to discredit the candidate. However, it does show the weight of Black leadership and suffrage in the district.

Map of Sugar Creek Township, 1878, Boone County Land Ownership Atlas, Boone County Genealogy, http://sites.rootsweb.com/~inboone/land/atlas_1878.htm

This increased influence of the Black vote was due in part to an increase in population. By 1870, 172 Black Hoosiers lived in Sugar Creek Township, seventy-seven of whom lived in Thorntown. The A.M.E. church had twenty-five adult congregants by 1874 and forty-five children in Sunday school. In 1879, the local newspaper reported that “Elias Schadd, colored, was impaneled as a petit juryman from Sugar Creek Township last Monday, to serve on the present term of court. He is the first colored man ever placed on the petit jury in Boone County.” [15] Thorntown was growing and changing, and for some white residents, this felt threatening.

Lebanon Pioneer, November 27, 1879, 3, NewspaperArchive.com

In nearby Whitestown, Boone County, white residents carried out “an unprovoked attack on a colored family.” According to the Lebanon Patriot, the family arrived on Thursday January 29, 1880, and “took refuge in an old dwelling house.” A mob surrounded the house the following evening and “showered the building with stones and brick-bats.” When the family was forced out of the structure, one of the children was “seriously injured” by a brick. The mob successfully “forced the family to leave town.” The Patriot reported that the attack was instigated by reports that Republicans were importing voters to Boone County. The paper dismissed the charges against republicans, stating that the patriarch of the unnamed family “had gone there of his own notion” and “the attack was wholly unwarranted.” [16]

The Democratic paper, the Lebanon Pioneer, attacked the Lebanon Patriot’s report of the incident with racist vitriol and slurs. The Pioneer reported that the Black man’s name was “Thusa” and that a white resident named “Mr. Scovill” lent him a stove and asked him several questions. The Pioneer reported on their supposed exchange. Thusa “said he had come from North Carolina, and that he had come to vote with the ‘publican party.’” Scovill asked him if he had any money or clothes to which he reportedly replied “no, sah.” The paper concluded, “He was a pauper, and imported as such, and the only reason he could give, was to vote the ‘publican’ ticket.” The newspaper claimed Whitestown was fed up with supporting such paupers and played down the physical attack, claiming the mob threw stones only at the house, and never mentioned the man’s wife or children.  The Pioneer claimed the attack continued “until the colored occupant became so frightened as he agreed to leave the town . . . no one was hit or hurt.” [17]

Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880, 2, accessed NewspaperArchive.com

In the same issue, the Lebanon Pioneer, printed a more extensive article charging Indiana Republicans with importing Black voters from North Carolina. Their entire argument hinged on the claim that if these Black settlers were coming of their own volition, they would never come to Boone County, Indiana. The paper asked:

If it is not for political purposes why do they come so far? Why don’t they stop in Pennsylvania or Ohio? And if the colored people are so anxious to come to Indiana, why don’t they come from Kentucky or Missouri. At least a few.

The Pioneer‘s argument was baseless. Of course, many people came from North Carolina, because they were joining family who came from North Carolina – a migration pattern that has existed for as long as migration has been recorded. And they did come from other states, especially Kentucky. In fact, about half of the residents of Sugar Creek were originally from the neighboring Blue Grass State. And some did come from Virginia and even New York.

Nonetheless the Pioneer stated:

It is a fact: they have brought them to Boone county. Republican leaders are doing it for the purpose of making sure of the county ticket and send a Republican to the legislature.

The paper concluded that these “stupid paupers” would “override the majority of real and true Indianians.” First of all, any true “Indianian” would have used the word “Hoosiers.” [18] Second, and all joking aside, there were few paupers or criminals among the Sugar Creek community. There were instead farmers, washer women, school teachers, reverends, barbers, ditch diggers, students, and veterans. [19] And despite all of the institutionalized prejudice, and against the odds, for many generations they created a healthy community in Sugar Creek, Boone County.

Lebanon Reporter, September 23, 2017, accessed http://eagleproject.homestead.com/

By the late 1890s, many of the Sugar Creek community had moved to Lebanon or surrounding towns for more employment opportunities. However, the Thorntown church stayed active for several more decades. In 1894, the Thorntown Argus reported that “the colored church” would serve as the polling place for the second precinct of Sugar Creek Township. [20] In 1898, the congregation raised money and built a brick parsonage building to house their reverend in comfort. In 1902, they held a successful New Year’s concert and fundraiser. That year, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the “good work” of the Literary Society and Sunday school and noted that the women of the AME congregation organized a Missionary Society. [21] Unfortunately, there are few records of the lives of the women of Sugar Creek. Census records show that many had large families and thus were mainly engaged in child care, as well as helping with the farm. Thus, the work of the missionary society is perhaps our best insight into the lives of the women of Sugar Creek. These women organized programs and social gatherings at the church and engaged in community service. They raised money for a new carpet for the church. The ladies held “a successful social” after the organized theological debate held at the church and their programs were known for being “excellent” even forty miles away in Indianapolis. They led the memorial services for one congregate in which they were “assisted” by the revered, as opposed to the other way around. [22]

Indianapolis Recorder, May 17, 1902, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Today, the only known physical remnant of the Sugar Creek Community is the small cemetery where the Civil War veteran Elijah Derricks is buried under a worn headstone. This is all the more reason to continue looking into this story. There is more here – to add, correct, and uncover. Thorntown librarians, genealogists and Eagle Scouts have been working to learn more, and the descendants of Roberts Settlement have shown that genealogical research can open up a whole new world of stories. [See related local projects] But even with what little we do know about Thorntown and Sugar Creek, the community stands as a powerful reminder to check prejudice against newcomers. Before they could vote, or testify in court, or expect a fair shot, Black settlers built a thriving community in Sugar Creek. They worked, raised families, built a school, celebrated their accomplishments, worshiped together, and perhaps most importantly, they cast their ballots.

*Note on Terminology: The term “Black” is used here as opposed to “African American” because it provides the necessary ambiguity to describe the Sugar Creek settlers. Some family names at Sugar Creek are the same as residents of Roberts Settlement and thus likely relatives. Many Roberts residents either had no African heritage or very distant and thus did not identity as “African American.” Describing the Sugar Creek settlers as “Black” is more inclusive of the possibility that Sugar Creek residents had the same heritage as Roberts residents.

Notes

[1] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880.
[2] 1850 and 1860 United States Census accessed AncestryLibrary.
[3] Deed Record Book 15, Records of Boone County Recorder’s Office.
[4] Ephrem Yared, “55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment,” Black Past, March 15, 2016, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/55th-massachusetts-infantry-regiment-1863-1865/
[5] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, October 11, 1883.
[6] Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, July 9, 1868.
[7] Thorntown Argus, March 6, 1897
[8] More on the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and Hoosier response: Indiana Historical Bureau
[9] Lebanon Patriot, September 15, 1870.
[10] “James Sidney Hinton,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.
[11] Lebanon Patriot, August 8, 1872.
[12] Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, August 15, 1872, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[13] Indianapolis Sun, November 3, 1896.
[14] Lebanon Pioneer, July 19, 1877.
[15] Lebanon Pioneer, November 27, 1879.
[16] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880.
[17] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880.
[18] Lindsey Beckley, “The Word ‘Hoosier:’ An Origin Story,” Transcript for Talking Hoosier History, Indiana Historical Bureau.
[19] 1850 and 1860 United States Census accessed AncestryLibrary.
[20] Thorntown Argus, November 3, 1894.
[21] Indianapolis Recorder, April 19, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[22] Indianapolis Recorder, April 19, 22, May 3, 17, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Further Reading

Anna-Lisa Cox, The Bone and Sinew of the Land (New York: PublicAffairs, 2018).

Warren Eugene Mitleer Jr., The Complications of Liberty: Free People of Color in North Carolina from the Colonial Period through Reconstruction, Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carolina Digital Repository, accessed cdr.lib.unc.edu.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1985).

Stephen A. Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).