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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Black Hoosiers exploring their roots

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Once barely more than a pipe dream for three Indianapolis community leaders – Rev. Andrew J. Brown, Jim C. Cummings Jr., and Williard “Mike” Ransom – four decades ago, Indiana Black Expo has grown into a multimillion-dollar corporation, and one of the largest ethnic cultural expositions in the United States.

Summer Celebration, Black Expo’s marque event, now has more than 300 exhibitors and fills much of the 400,000 square feet of the Indiana Convention Center during the nearly two-week summer exposition. Began as an initiative to uplift and celebrate the lives of Indiana’s Black citizens in 1970, IBE touches many Hoosiers, particularly the urban Black residents of Indiana.

According to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009 there were 628,910 African Americans in Indiana, 269,333 in the Indianapolis metropolitan area, and 241,130 in Indianapolis, which has the same boundaries as Marion County. The state of Indiana is estimated to be 9.8 percent Black, the Indianapolis metro area is 15.4 percent Black, and the city of Indianapolis is 27.1 percent Black.

In 2007, Indianapolis had a Black population of 208,183, making it the fifth-largest African-American population in the Midwest, behind Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Summer Celebration now attracts more than 300,000 people to the Indianapolis expo every year. Most of its visitors are from Central Indiana, but Black Expo attendees travel to the event from all over America and beyond. IBE currently has 12 chapters in Indiana, including Gary, a northern Indiana city that had the largest African-American population in the U.S., per capita (84.3 percent), in 2000.

Black people have lived in the land that eventually became known as Indiana since the early 18th century. Fur traders initially migrated to the territory in the early 1700s. The Indiana wilderness was called New France, but few records were kept. Some of the explorers brought slaves with them, which makes it quite likely that Black people were among the pioneers who explored the rugged Indiana frontier.

The first known records of Black people in Indiana date to 1746. For example, there were 40 white men and five Blacks in a French settlement on the Wabash River in the mid-1700s. This was the foundation for the city of Vincennes, which is located in Knox County along Indiana’s southwestern border. Some French settlers had Indian slaves, but before too long the French were buying Black men from trading posts on the lower Mississippi River and bringing them to Indiana.

Congress passed a group of laws in 1787 known as the Northwest Ordinance. One of those laws outlawed slavery, although the practice continued to be legal in Virginia, which still owned the land that is now Indiana. Slaveholders soon found ways to bring slaves, particularly Black slaves, into the Indiana territory as long-term indentured servants. Many people thought that indentured servitude was just another form of slavery.

The American Colonization Society was established in 1817 “to send Blacks back to Africa.” Indiana was perceived as not welcoming toward people of color, especially runaway slaves, from 1816 through the end of the Civil War in 1865 – despite the fact that Indiana’s white soldiers fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War. In fact, the Indiana legislature passed a bill to keep “Negroes” out of Indiana in 1831.

In 1850, Indiana Gov. Joseph A. Wright petitioned the legislature for money to help build a settlement for Blacks in Liberia but most Indiana Blacks were against the back to Africa movement. By 1853, 33 Blacks had sailed for Africa and another 14 followed in 1854. By 1851, Article 13 had been passed (93-40) to keep ‘Negroes” from coming to Indiana. More than 1,350,000 people lived in Indiana by 1860, and a little over 11,000 were of African descent.

Not all Blacks in the Indiana territory belonged to somebody as a slave or an indentured servant. By the time Indiana became a state, in 1816, many free Black men and women were already settled within its borders. Some had been born free, while others were set free and moved to Indiana from other states. There were more than 20 Black settlements, although most of those communities are inhabited by people of mixed race, in the years before the Civil War.

A great number of the Blacks who settled in Indiana were born in North Carolina but moved to the state to avoid the extremely restrictive laws of the South. Blacks fought for their own freedom. More than 1,300 Black men from Indiana fought with the Union Army in The United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.

The status of Blacks in the Hoosier state is still a subject of substantial debate.

Indiana African Americans have come a long way since the days that Indiana was primarily forest on the far western front of the U.S. The Black population is now almost 10 percent of the state’s 2009 estimated population of 6.4 million people. Among their ranks are thriving doctors, lawyers, professors, politicians, artisans, and skilled laborers or every imaginable profession. Tens of thousands of them will descend on Indianapolis to celebrate the 40th Indiana Black Expo summer gathering and infuse an anticipated more than $30 million into the local economy. Their presence will be welcomed and celebrated.

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