The Unlikely Civil Rights Legacy of Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton

“Sherman Minton,” photograph, n.d., Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

Sherman Minton’s willingness to find flexibility in the law and his own thinking helped end state-sanctioned discrimination toward African Americans in housing, employment, and education. Considering his rigid stance on judicial restraint, Minton’s reformist civil rights record is surprising at first glance. He believed that Congress, not the courts, should define the country’s laws. As an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1949-1956, Minton invariably deferred to both congressional and judicial precedent, opposing activism by the Court. A closer look at his role in several landmark desegregation cases shows how Minton was able to stretch precedent in order to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. His much-lauded judicial opinion on Barrows v. Jackson, the Supreme Court decision that ended discriminatory housing covenants, is particularly relevant. Today, much work remains to fully end discriminatory policies that create disparity in income and living conditions for millions of Black Americans, a sort of de facto segregation that lingers more than sixty years after these Civil Rights Era desegregation cases. The civil rights work of Sherman Minton is worth considering here, if for no other reason, because it remains unfinished.

New Albany High School, The Vista, 1909, accessed Maurer School of Law History and Archives, Indiana University. Sherman Minton is second from the left.
Indiana University, The Arbutus for Nineteen Thirteen, “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012,” accessed AncestryLibrary.com

Young Minton, better known as “Shay,” was a troublemaker. Born in Georgetown, Indiana, in 1890, he had to work from a young age to help support his struggling family. Yet, he somehow still found the energy to knock neighbors hats off with snowballs or loosen a wheel on his brother’s wagon, causing it to fall off and ruin his date. While Minton may have been rambunctious in his spare time, he was a serious student with a love of learning. He graduated from New Albany High School in 1910 and worked a series of jobs before enrolling at Indiana University in 1911.[1]

At IU, Minton excelled in football, baseball, and debate. He took two years of undergraduate classes before entering the IU School of Law, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1915.[2] He then won a scholarship to Yale University School of Law where he earned his Master of Laws degree in 1916.[3] While at Yale, Minton came under the tutelage of former President William Howard Taft, who himself would go on to serve as a Supreme Court justice (the only president to boast this accomplishment). Reportedly, after Shay argued with Taft over a lesson about a certain Supreme Court ruling, Taft told his student:

I’m afraid, Mr. Minton, that if you don’t like the way this law has been interpreted, you will have to get on the Supreme Court and change it.[4]

Minton would later take the former president up on this suggestion.

Upon graduation from Yale, Minton set up a law practice in New Albany. Soon after, the United States entered WWI and Minton immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was commissioned as an infantry officer, trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison, and sent overseas in July of 1918 where he served on the French front.[5]

Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

After returning from war, Minton entered the Democratic primary to seek a congressional Senate seat. While he was unsuccessful in this 1920 election, he would remain active or interested in Democratic Party politics his entire life.[6] For the following decade, he practiced law before making another unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1930.[7] During the 1930s, he became even more politically active, campaigning for Paul McNutt in the 1932 gubernatorial race.[8] After McNutt was elected, the new governor rewarded Minton with his first public office, appointing him public counselor to the Public Service Commission. Minton began his work March 8, 1933, representing the public against utilities companies, and securing rate reductions in hundreds of cases.[9]

In 1934, Minton again ran for Congress on a platform of staunch support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. That November 6th, Indiana voters finally sent Minton to Washington.[10] He took his seat in the U.S. Senate next to future President Harry Truman in January 1935.

Tampa Morning Tribune, January 3, 1935, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

Minton would serve only one term in Congress, but the experience influenced his later judicial positions. As a member of a committee that investigated utility companies, he helped break up monopolies, work he would later continue from the bench. He was a vocal critic of the Supreme Court decisions that declared several New Deal policies unconstitutional, establishing his long-held view that the Court shouldn’t overturn the will of the people as expressed through their elected officials. And he became a spokesman for the administration, explaining complicated issues (like Roosevelt’s court packing plan) in plain language, a strength he would later bring to his written judicial opinions.[11]

When it came to increasing or strengthening the rights of  African Americans, he was swayed neither by the administration nor legislative precedent. Instead, Minton took a moral stand for civil rights. For example, he broke with the administration’s lack of action against lynching by advocating for anti-lynching legislation throughout his term.[12] When opponents to a 1938 anti-lynching bill claimed that the states should regulate lynching, not Congress, Minton noted that there had been eight lynchings the previous year and none were prosecuted. “In other words,” Minton told his fellow senators, “there was 100 percent failure to prosecute the most heinous crime.”[13] He finished with a moral argument for legislative interference to stop lynching, stating:

I am interested in State rights, but I am much more interested in human rights.[14]

Minton was again nominated for his Senate seat in 1940, but lost as the Republican Party swept the Indiana elections. Recognizing his service to the Democratic Party and the administration, in January 1941, President Roosevelt made Minton his administrative assistant. Soon a position on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a busy federal court located  in Chicago, opened, and FDR nominated Minton for this prestigious judgeship. On May 7, 1941, the Senate confirmed the nomination and that October Minton joined the Seventh Circuit bench. [15]

Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1941, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard a large number of cases and Minton wrote his share of opinions and dissents in his eight years on the bench in Chicago. Yet, even drawing on this large sample of cases, it can be difficult to understand his judicial philosophy. He seems full of contradictions at times.

An ardent New Dealer, Minton believed the government was responsible for improving the lives of its citizens, which included protecting consumers. Thus, Minton often decided against corporations engaging in monopolistic practices and usually decided for the rights of labor unions. However, it was the greater good of the majority of citizens that moved Minton, not necessarily the rights of individuals. Thus, he often decided in favor of government agencies at the expense of individual rights. This was especially true when the decision could potentially impact national security. Perhaps this is not surprising considering for much of his time on the Seventh Circuit bench, the world was at war and many in the United States feared both foreign and domestic enemy agents.[16]

New York Daily News, March 30, 1948, 57, accessed Newspapers.com.

Minton was dedicated to judicial restraint and  upholding legislative intent – two sides of the same coin. In other words, Minton believed that the courts should not overturn congressional legislation which was the will of the people made law. This dovetails with his interest in protecting the rights of the majority. By deferring to Congress, Minton believed he was deferring to the people of the United States who elected the congressmen. But in cases of individual freedoms, his position sometimes put him out of step with his colleagues who saw an opportunity to expand civil liberties through their decisions. Minton was not opposed to increased civil liberties, he just believed that such issues were under the purview of Congress, not the courts. He would adhere to this view as he ascended to the nation’s highest court.[17]

Indianapolis Times, October 12, 1949, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In September 1949, President Harry Truman nominated Sherman Minton, his old friend from their years in the Senate, for the Supreme Court of the United States. Minton was confirmed and took his place on the bench that October.[18] As an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Minton maintained his general position of restraint, tendency to side with legislative precedent and the administration against individuals, and his disinclination to overturn the rulings of state courts. Despite this determination, Minton maintained a consistently strong, activist position when it came to civil rights issues, especially desegregation, as evidenced by landmark cases such as McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, Sweatt v. Painter, Brown v. Board of Education, and Barrows v. Jackson.

“George W. McLaurin,” photograph, n.d., Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, accessed Oklahoma Historical Society.

On June 5, 1950, the Supreme Court decided both McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents and Sweatt v. Painter. These cases overturned the “separate but equal” precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson with the Court unanimously deciding that, at the level of graduate school and law school, segregation denied Black students equal educational opportunities, violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights to “equal protection of the laws.”[19] Referring to the separate areas where a Black student was forced to eat and study, Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote in the Court opinion:

Such restrictions impair and inhibit his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession . . . State imposed restrictions which produce such inequalities cannot be sustained.[20]

Alabama Tribune, February 17, 1950, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

These cases provided precedent for the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. In this historic case, the Court determined that, like the earlier cases dealing with higher education, segregation in public schools also violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In short, the justices determined that there was no such thing as “separate but equal” education. In his opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.[21]

“English Class at Moton High School,” photograph, 1914, Brown v. Board of Education, National Archives. National Archives caption: English class at Moton High School, a school for Black students, one of several photographs entered as evidence in the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, which was one of five cases that the Supreme Court consolidated under Brown v. Board of Education, ca. 1951

Chief Justice Warren felt that an unanimous decision was essential in Brown in order to convey to the public that the Court was taking a moral as well as a constitutional stand against segregation and that the issue was now decided unequivocally. Imparting that moral argument in the opinion for Brown, Justice Warren wrote:

To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.[22]

Legal historians Linda Gugin and James St. Clair argued that Sherman Minton played a vital role in making these decisions unanimous. The scholars called him “the Court’s strongest team player” because of the warm personal relationships he fostered with his colleagues.[23] Minton was reportedly the only justice welcome in every one of their offices. He regularly organized group lunches and made sure to express his respect for his fellow justices when he dissented from their opinions. It was, therefore, quite possible that Minton was able to convey the importance of a united front on the Brown decision to his undecided colleagues.

Greencastle Daily Banner, November 17, 1953, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Because the opinions in the aforementioned cases were written by the Chief Justice (Vinson for the 1950 cases and Warren in 1954), it is impossible to definitively analyze Minton’s impact on the decisions. However, in the 1953 case of Barrows v. Jackson, Minton penned the Court’s opinion, allowing us a rare opportunity to dissect his thinking and interpret his own views on segregation and civil rights. To summarize the complicated case of Barrows v. Jackson briefly, the white neighbors of Los Angeles resident Leola Jackson were suing her for damages after she sold her house to African American buyers. This sale violated the neighborhood’s “restrictive property covenant,” a clause forbidding the sale of property in the neighborhood to non-white buyers.[24]

In the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court had ruled that while private discrimination was not unconstitutional, state courts could not enforce restrictive covenants because this would constitute state action in discrimination. Such state involvement would violate the State Action Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which affirms that “a state cannot make or enforce any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of any citizen.” In other words, white people were free to discriminate against African Americans by refusing to sell them homes in segregated neighborhoods, but the courts could not enforce such segregation or it would be the state itself that was discriminating against African Americans, which was unconstitutional.[25]

White supporters of segregated neighborhoods quickly identified a weakness to exploit in the Shelley decision – the issue of damages. Was it legal for white home owners to sue for damages when their restrictive covenants were violated? If so, this blatant attempt to intimidate white sellers into not selling to Black buyers would make the spirit of Shelley, which was intended to end covenants, null and unenforceable. The Barrows v. Jackson case would decide if state-sanctioned segregated neighborhoods could continue.[26]

Alabama Tribune, April 24, 1953, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Minton’s decision in Barrows v. Jackson drew on this idea of state action as defined in Shelley and expanded it to finally end restrictive covenants for good. This required an advanced understanding of the technical aspects involved in the case, as well as a morally-based desire to end injustice in housing for African Americans. In order to end the unjust covenant practice, Minton had to engage in some complex legal maneuvering and creative use of precedent.

The first issue Minton addressed in his majority opinion in Barrows v. Jackson was a relatively straightforward application of the “state action” determination in the Shelley decision. He argued that if the state were to award damages to Jackson’s neighbors for her violation of the covenant, this would constitute “state action.” This would then violate the Fourteenth Amendment State Action Clause.[27]

The major legal challenge Minton resolved with his opinion, was that of the petitioners’ attempt to circumvent Shelley altogether. The white petitioners were not suing the Black buyers for damages, which would have made the discrimination obvious. They were suing the white seller. This was a carefully chosen legal strategy. Traditionally, the Court would not hear cases where the party being impacted, in this case discriminated against, was not present. The attorneys for the neighbors hoped that the case would be dismissed because the rights being violated were that of a third party (the Black buyers), who were not present in the courtroom. Here, Minton flipped the question. He asked the Barrows’ attorneys, “whose constitutional rights would be violated if California failed to award contract damages to the petitioners?” They had to reply “that no one’s rights would be violated.” So, where then was the damage? The petitioners would have to bring the racial issue into the courtroom if they were claiming some damage had been done in selling to a Black buyer.[28]

Indianapolis Recorder, June 20, 1953, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Minton extended the Shelley decision to cover the missing third party issue by explaining that Jackson had a right to protect herself against the “coercion” of the petitioner. In short, the Shelley decision was intended to stop discrimination against African American buyers. If Jackson had to pay damages for violating the discriminatory covenant that Shelley had intended to invalidate then she would, in fact, be paying for failing to discriminate – a direct contradiction of the intent of Shelley. He determined that the interests of Jackson and the Black buyers were closely enough aligned that Jackson represented the buyers. Thus there was no missing third party and racial discrimination was the inherent issue.[29]

Minton had little tolerance for the petitioners’ blatant attempt to circumvent the Shelley decision through such lawsuits aimed at technicalities. And he had no tolerance for continued discrimination against African Americans. He summed up his thinking eloquently and passionately in his written opinion:

The relation between the coercion exerted on respondent [Jackson] and her possible pecuniary loss thereby is so close to the purpose of the restrictive covenant to violate the constitutional rights of those discriminated against, that respondent is the only effective adversary of the unworthy covenant in its last stand. She will be permitted to protect herself and, by so doing, close the gap to the use of this covenant, so universally condemned by the courts.[30]

Minton and his clerks cited several other cases, notably Pierce v. Society of Sisters, and wrote careful clauses further defining the third party issue. [See complete legal analysis here]. In summary, Minton closed the last loophole allowing restrictive covenants and state-sanctioned segregation. Legal scholars Gugin and St. Clair summarized the final decision thusly:

The court moved to make restrictive covenants virtually unenforceable in state courts by ruling that state courts cannot award damages when a restrictive covenant is violated because it is tantamount to the state itself discriminating on the basis of race, which it may not do under the Fourteenth Amendment.[31]

California Eagle, June 18, 1953, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

Minton’s arguments as forwarded in his written opinion in Barrows v. Jackson may stand as his finest judicial moment. Gugin and St. Clair called it “Minton’s most memorable opinion” and noted that “he was praised in law review articles for his imaginative approach.”[32]  In fact, the Barrows decision has been classed among the most important desegregation events of the Civil Rights Era. Although Barrows determined that the state would not discriminate, de facto segregation continued.

Tracy Hadden Loh, Christopher Coes, and Becca Buthe, “The Great Real Estate Reset,” December 16, 2020, accessed Brookings.

In fact, neighborhoods remain segregated to this day. The real estate opportunities afforded white Americans and denied Black Americans in the 1950s helped widen the economic disparity between races. “White flight” from cities and government subsidies for suburbs have created new segregated neighborhoods. Zoning, housing codes, gentrification, and low-income housing areas have further separated economic classes, divided along racial lines. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic further highlighted this disparity. More than twice as many Black Americans died as a result of “the inequitable living conditions, work circumstances, underlying conditions, and lower access to health care that characterize segregated neighborhoods.” According to the Brookings Institute:

Public policy and industry practice have produced a separate and unequal landscape of American neighborhoods, propagating multigenerational negative impacts on health, social mobility, and wealth for people of color as well as harmful divisions in our economy and society.[33]

As the Supreme Court decided in the desegregation cases when Minton sat on the bench in the 1950s, there is no such thing as separate but equal. The work for equal rights for Black Americans and the perfection of the promises made in the United States Constitution continues.

Notes

[1] 1900 United States Federal Census, Georgetown Township, Floyd County, Indiana, page 8, line 36, Enumeration District: 0054; FHL microfilm: 1240371, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; “Twenty Pupils Suspended,” Plymouth Tribune, February 25, 1909, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, Sherman Minton: New Deal Senator, Cold War Justice (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1997), 38-44.

[2] “Indiana University Debaters Who Will Meet Illinois and Ohio Orators in Annual Contest,” Indianapolis News, March 13, 1913, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton, Star Half Appears on Field,” South Bend Tribune, November 19, 1913, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Bryan Prize is Awarded,” Indianapolis Star, April 9, 1914, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lineup for Sunday’s Game,” Bloomington Evening World, April 23, 1915, 1, Newspapers.com.; “Medic and Law Graduate List,” Bloomington Evening World, May 28, 1915, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] “News of the Colleges,” Indianapolis News, September 29, 1915, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Enters Yale,” Bloomington Evening World, September 29, 1915, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; 1920 Alumni Directory of Yale University (New Haven: Yale University, 1920), 541, accessed  HathiTrust.

[4] Gugin and St. Clair, 52.

[5] Sherman Minton Draft Registration Card, June 1, 1917, Floyd County, Indiana, Form 522, No. 46, U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; “In Second Training Camp,” Indianapolis News, August 14, 1917, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; U.S. Army, Passenger List of Organizations and Casuals Returning to the United States, July 7, 1919, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; National Archives at College Park, Record Group 92, Roll or Box 125, U.S., Army Transport Service Arriving and Departing Passenger Lists, 1910-1939, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

[6] “Soldier Announces His Candidacy for Congress,” Jasper Herald, December 5, 1919, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “J. W. Ewing Wins Third District Nomination,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, May 8, 1920, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[7] “Democrats to Open Campaign Sept. 18,” Seymour Daily Tribune, September 13, 1914, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Democratic Speakings Announced for County,” Brownstown Banner, September 17, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Sherman Minton Has Brilliant Record,” Jeffersonville Evening News, reprinted Jasper Herald, January 24, 1930, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; Sherman Minton, “To The Voters of Dubois Co,” Jasper Herald, May 16, 1930, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Democrats in Jasper Rally,” Bedford Daily Mail, October 15, 1930, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[8] “Meeting Shows M’Nutt Backing,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “McNutt Meeting Set for Tonight,” Boonville Enquirer, April 29, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[9] Ralph L. Brooks, “State’s Commerce-Industry Division Affects All Citizens,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, September 17, 1933, 57, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “Republicans Sweep City, County; Minton Beats Robinson in Race for Senate Seat,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, November 7, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Leads Lake Ticket,” Hammond Times, November 8, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Winner,” Boonville Enquirer, November 9, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[11] Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Four: “Fulfilling His New Deal Promise.”

[12] “Senators Agree on One Point,” Muncie Evening Press,” August 6, 1937, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.; “May Use Anti-Lynch Bill in Filibuster,” Baltimore Sun, November 25, 1940, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 3rd Session, 1938, vol. 83:2. 1931-45, cited in Gugin and St. Clair, 115.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Sherman Minton Is Named to Circuit Court of Appeals,” Muncie Evening Press, May 7, 1941, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Sworn In as U.S. Judge,” Indianapolis Star, May 31, 1941, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Induction Today,” Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1941, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Becomes U.S. Judge, Says Good-by, Politics,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1941, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[16] Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Seven: “A Faithful Disciple of Judicial Restraint.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Names Minton to High Court,” Terre Haute Tribune, September 15, 1949, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Is Confirmed for Court, 48 to 16,” New York Times, October 5, 1949, 1, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.; “Hoosier Sworn In As Supreme Court Justice,” Muncie Evening Press, October 12, 1949, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Sworn In As Supreme Court Justice,” New York Times, October 13, 1949, 18, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.

[19] Supreme Court of the United States, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education et al., Decided June 5, 1950, 339 U.S. 637, Legal Information Institute.; Supreme Court of the United States, Sweatt v. Painter et al., Decided June 5, 1950, 339 U.S. 629, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[20] Supreme Court, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State.

[21] Supreme Court of the United States, Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., Decided May 17, 1954, 347 U.S. 483, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Gugin and St. Clair, 263.

[24] Supreme Court of the United States, Barrows et al. v. Jackson, Decided June 15, 1953, 346 U.S. 249, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[25] Supreme Court of the United States, Shelley et ux. v. Kraemer et ux. McGhee et ux. v. Sipes et al., Decided May 3, 1948, 334 U.S. 1, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[26] David N. Atkinson, “Justice Sherman Minton and the Protection of Minority Rights,” Washington and Lee Law Review 34, iss. 1 (1997): 97-117, accessed Washington and Lee University School of Law Scholarly Commons.

[27] Supreme Court, Barrows et al. v. Jackson.

[28] Ibid.; Atkinson, 109.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Supreme Court, Barrows et al. v. Jackson.

[31] Gugin and St. Clair, 248.

[32] Ibid., 248-49.

[33] Tracy Hadden Loh, Christopher Coes, and Becca Buthe, “The Great Real Estate Reset,” December 16, 2020, Brookings Institute.

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).