African-Americans have helped shape the city of Indianapolis from the start, and their contributions have paved the way for local leaders of today. Despite the hate and prejudice many of these citizens faced, they opened doors that previous generations thought were impossible for Black Americans to step through. Here is a look back at some local leaders of the past:
Dr. Samuel Elbert: First licensed Black doctor in Indiana
Dr. Samuel Elbert was born in 1832 and attended The Medical College of Indiana to become a doctor. After he paid tuition and attended classes, the school refused to grant him a degree. He won a case against the school and became the first licensed African-American physician in Indiana. Elbert served one term as president of the Indianapolis Board of Health. In the late 1800s, he was asked by President Benjamin Harrison to serve as the local pension surgeon. He declined after being threatened by whites.
James T. V. Hill:
Prominent local Black attorney
James T. V. Hill graduated from Central Law School and practiced law in Indiana from 1882 to 1928. During that time, injustices toward minorities were common, and Hill was enthusiastically engaging himself in civic affairs. Accounts of his life paint him as a valued member of the Indiana Bar. In 1890, he was appointed to a Marion County grand jury.
First African-American elected to Indiana Senate
Robert Brokenburr moved to Indianapolis in 1909 after receiving a law degree from Howard University. He is famous for his civil rights work as a lawyer and a legislator. He worked as a legal advisor for Madam C.J. Walker and was the first African-American admitted to the Indiana Bar Association. In 1940, he was elected to the Indiana Senate, where he supported many bills that protected the civil rights of Hoosiers.
Charles Wiggins: Famous Black racecar driver and mechanic
Charles Wiggins was born in 1897 in Evansville, Indiana. When white mechanics joined the army, he was hired at an auto repair shop. He opened his own shop in 1922 and became one of the city’s most sought-after mechanics. In his spare time, he designed cars from parts he found at junk yards and gained an interest in racing. Though he was not allowed to take part in the Indianapolis 500 because of his ethnicity, he formed a racing league with African-American drivers called The Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. He fought for African-American participation in racing until his death in Indianapolis in 1979 at the age of 82.
Emma Christi Baker: First female police officer in Indianapolis
On June 15, 1918, 53-year-old Emma Baker became both the first woman and the first African-American woman to be a police officer for the City of Indianapolis. Before her job as officer, she was well known through Indianapolis as the owner of a laundry business, and she was recruited because of how respected she was in the Black community. During WWI, female officers were not allowed to patrol the streets, and she was one of the first women allowed to work outside the station patrolling public places downtown and arresting shoplifters.
Jim Sears: First Black Indiana state trooper
In 1962, Jim Sears became the first African-American Indiana state trooper. During his 30 years of service, troopers would often refuse to speak to him or offer backup. Despite the prejudice he faced, he remained a man of quiet strength and gentleness. In 1976, Sears and other Black troopers settled a racial discrimination lawsuit with the state police, causing them to agree to recruit and promote minorities. Sears retired in 1992 with the rank of captain.
Z. Mae Jimison: First Black female judge in Marion County
Z. Mae Jimison was the first Black woman to serve as a judge in Marion County and the first African-American nominated to run for mayor of Indianapolis. Though she did not win, her run for mayor in 1995 was the first time many Hoosiers contemplated the possibility of a Black person becoming mayor of our city, and she opened doors for future Black politicians.