If you’re from Indiana, you’ve likely faced the age-old question:
“So, what exactly is a Hoosier?”
Of course, we’ve heard theories. Richmond resident John Finley’s poem “The Hoosier’s Nest” — originally spelled “Hoosher” — is often attributed as the first mention of this distinctly Indiana term. The word also appears in the “Carrier’s Address” of the Indiana Democrat on January 3, 1832. Yet another theory is that pioneer settlers would respond, “Who’s yere?” to a knock on the door.
But one of the most interesting theories is one you may not have heard: the story of Harry Hoosier.
Harry Hoosier, sometimes spelled Harry Hosier, was described by Booker T. Washington as “the first Black American Methodist preacher in the United States.” Born enslaved around 1750, Harry Hoosier was sold to a plantation near Baltimore, where he became a talented religious orator who traveled throughout the Appalachian frontier, according to Fisk University Professor William D. Piersen.
Harry Hoosier’s story is one of resilience and success. Despite being illiterate, Mr. Hoosier’s message was heard far and wide, and he became one of the best-known and greatest preachers of his time. According to a recent bill in the Indiana Statehouse, “many of Harry Hoosier’s followers brought their Methodist beliefs and Hoosier nickname to Indiana in the decades before and after Indiana was granted statehood in 1816.”
With his great influence, it is believed that Mr. Hoosier’s followers became known as Hoosiers, followers who were also part of a growing number of Methodists beginning to question the practice of slavery. With a Black leader as an example, these 18th Century “Hoosiers” may have honed the principles we understand as “Hoosier Hospitality” today — the belief in kindness, equality, and respect.
Until recently, I had never heard the story of Harry Hoosier, despite attending school in Indiana and surrounded by strong, Black leaders and family members throughout my lifetime. But Harry Hoosier confirms what we already knew: Black history has always been American history, and Black history has always been Hoosier history. From oral traditions passed down from generation to generation, to the legacy of legends like Madam C.J. Walker, Mari Evans, Major Taylor, Wes Montgomery, the Jackson 5 and Babyface, Black Hoosiers have always been part of our state’s story.
Bringing this story into the light gives us a better understanding of the vast, diverse history of our great state. And during Black History Month, there is no better time to learn our history and to celebrate it.
While there are many partisan arguments surrounding education — including recent political stunts falsely claiming that Black studies has no educational value — Harry Hoosier’s story is slowly making its way into our modern consciousness in a bipartisan way.
This year, Indiana Representative J.D. Prescott, a Republican from Union City, introduced House Bill 1143 recognizing Harry Hoosier as our state’s namesake. In 2016, the Indiana Bicentennial Commission endorsed the “Harry Hoosier Project,” an effort to share the story of the man who lives on in our conversations every day.
I hope Harry Hoosier’s story inspires others to begin to unwrap more forgotten or neglected stories. History — the way we tell it, the way we analyze it, and the ways we pass it on to future generations — is always evolving. Our stories have always existed. But these stories need to be shared with everyone, and they need to be recognized as a vital part of American history too.
Harry Hoosier lived centuries ago. We can’t speak to him or even know as many details about his life as we may want to. But his existence, the stories we have of him, are what define our past and shape our future.
Black history is about joy. It’s about survival, resilience, and it’s about success.
And above all, it needs to be shared.