African Americans settled county with white counterparts
Civic anniversaries are important times for reflection and we are in the midst of several opportunities for this. 2016 was the Indiana state bicentennial and 2023 will be the Hamilton County and Noblesville bicentennial. This year, 2019, will be a special anniversary – the bicentennial of the African American experience in Hamilton County. This will be a good reason for introspection and discussion.
As I pointed out in a recent issue of this magazine, (Aug/Sep 2018), the Treaty of St. Mary’s was signed in October 1818 and opened this part of Indiana for settlement. In April of 1819, the first white settlers arrived in Hamilton County and were greeted by an African American fur trader who helped them to survive the first year. Unfortunately, we don’t know his name – he was called “Pete”, “Smith”, and “Bill Allen” by various source, none of which were contemporary. Some of these sources suggest that he was going to be a permanent settler. Sadly, two years later, a land speculator claimed that the fur trader was a runaway slave and he was taken south over the protests of the other settlers.
Murphy and Roberts
There had been an African American presence in the area before 1819. Chief Anderson, the head of the Delaware Indians at Andersontown, had a black man as an interpreter when missionaries arrived in 1806. The interpreter was an older man and was probably not the same person as the later fur trader. There were three African Americans listed in the 1820 census in Delaware County in Indiana, (the area around the west fork of White River which included the future site of Hamilton County).
In 1828, ex-slave Thomas Murphy (1808-1881) settled here. He had arrived with George Boxley and, according to the 1830 census, was the only African American in the county. He was followed by the families that created the Roberts Settlement in the 1830s, by arrivals on the Underground Railroad, and by African American migrants from other states looking for opportunity.
Race relations in the county have had high and low periods. Westfield was known for its abolitionism and as an important station on the Underground Railroad. These feelings were not universal – eggs were thrown at abolitionists in Noblesville. There was an era of hope that occurred between the Civil War and 1880. This period saw the business prosperity of individuals like Daniel Robbins and Steven Roberts (discussed in HCBM Oct/Nov 2011 and Feb/Mar 2014).
Ku Klux Klan and Segregation
There was also African American involvement in politics, with large presidential rallies in 1872 and 1880, and attempts to run for local offices like John Burtwell for Washington Township trustee in 1864 and Eli Roberts for County Recorder in 1880 (both lost). African Americans were also part of law enforcement, such as Justice of the Peace Willis Venable, Court Bailiff Barney Stone, Town Constable John Hord, and the Sheriff’s posse that I wrote about in the Apr/May 2016 issue. The Noblesville schools were desegregated in 1890. There were still issues and incidents, but the interaction between races tended to reflect well on the community.
However, this changed with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after 1900 and the failure of the natural gas boom. There were two chapters of the KKK here in the 1920’s. Granted, Hamilton County did convict the Grand Dragon of the KKK for murder in 1925, but racism was still an issue. African Americans were pushed out of politics, restaurants and theaters became segregated, and certain neighborhoods were “restricted” during the later suburban boom. Blacks were not allowed to swim in the Forest Park pool, (despite it being a taxpayer funded facility), until a Civil Rights movement began in the 1950’s.
Time for Examination
Some of the problems were simply social attitudes. Local organizations staged minstrel shows for charity until the 1960’s. We understand now that this is terribly offensive, but it is still remembered with some bitterness by black members of the community. These issues are reflected in the population statistics where the African American population reached a peak in 1880, and then saw a steady decline between 1900 and 1970. By 1970, the African American population was 272 people out of a total population of 54,532. Fortunately, it has seen a quick rise in recent years. The overall county population also dropped after 1900, but had recovered by 1930.
Now would be good time to examine this history. Coincidentally, this year will be the 400th anniversary of a significant event in African American history in the United States, which was the first slaves arriving at Jamestown in 1619. This will probably be a large topic of public conversation.
African Americans have been an integral part of the political, economic, legal, religious, and social history of Hamilton County from the beginning to the present day. This year will be our chance to explore, discuss, and celebrate this.