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Black History of Noblesville Township

The Bicentennial centers around five themes including “Diversity and Inclusion.” As part of our effort to highlight stories that aren’t common knowledge or might not yet be part of an official historical record, the Black history of Noblesville Township gets special attention in “Celebrating Hamilton County, Indiana: 200 Years of Change” in a chapter written by Bryan Glover. Glover is on the board of directors of the Noblesville Diversity Coalition, Roberts Settlement and the Noblesville Chamber of Commerce. The following is an excerpt from the book.


Noblesville’s Black history is a story of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. Through individual and collective efforts, determination, faith and resilience, these citizens were able to overcome obstacles time and time again to find their rightful place within a community that was not always welcoming.


Noblesville’s Black history has previously been excluded from the historical narrative, but it is vitally important to recognize it as being integral to the entire history of Noblesville and Hamilton County. To that end, in this book we present our Black history in its own section within the larger Noblesville Township history.


Oral histories — those stories passed on by word of mouth — of our Black ancestors provide much of the underpinnings for what we present here. Where possible, their histories are substantiated by newspaper articles, census records, land deeds, books, online resources, and more. We believe the pages that follow will provide readers with a more complete picture of Noblesville’s rich, diverse history, and more importantly, help to enlighten all of us as we navigate our way toward a more inclusive future. (1)

Despite graduating with high honors from Noblesville High School in 1888, Eva D. Steward was not "good enough" to teach white children. She went on to become a teacher at the Noblesville Colored School. (Courtesy of Nora Fae White)

African Americans in Indiana — Historical Backdrop


Early in the settlement of Black people in Indiana, there were ominous signals of the challenges they would face in their struggle for full acceptance. While the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the Northwest Territory, it didn’t keep white settlers from transporting enslaved people into the Territory. Political leaders also did all they could to thwart the laws’ intentions.


By the time Indiana became a state in 1816, antislavery advocates had assumed political control. However, there was a paradox: While Indiana was antislavery, it was also anti-Black. (2)


How could a state that opposed slavery also act against people who were enslaved? Blacks, though technically “free,” were denied the right to vote, serve in the militia, testify in court cases involving whites, or attend public schools. After 1831, the State of Indiana required Black settlers to register with county authorities and post a $500 bond as a guarantee of “good behavior,” although Indiana counties were very inconsistent in their enforcement of the requirement. (There are no records indicating that Hamilton County required Blacks to register in this way). (3)


The Indiana State Legislature wanted to make it absolutely clear that Black people were not welcome. Article XIII to the Indiana Constitution in 1851 stated, “No Negro or Mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” It also prohibited whites from entering into contracts with Blacks, or employing them. (4)


The desired effect was achieved, somewhat. African Americans got the message and dramatically slowed their migration to Indiana. (5) But it was a slowdown, not a halt. Somehow, some determined people of color still came to Indiana and put down roots.


Noblesville’s Early African American Pioneers (1790-1850)


The path of one of the earliest Black pioneers intersected with one of the most well-known white pioneers, William Conner. Pete Smith’s story begins in 1819, and much of his story is legend, often told and impossible to verify, but it does serve to illustrate what Black people were up against at the time.


As the legend goes, following a day of working the fields, a white settler left her muddy boots in front of her cabin door. When the boots came up missing the following morning, settlers assumed that one of the neighboring Delaware Indians stole them. Smith, who had been living nearby with a family of Delaware Indians, pleaded for patience on the part of the settlers with a promise that the shoes would soon be returned. For unknown reasons, Smith was able to gain the settlers’ trust, even though he, too, was a relative stranger. The next day, the woman’s boots were returned to the spot where they went missing, and Smith’s good deed earned him a place to live among the white settlers.


Smith raised his own crops, traded in furs, and even worked for William Conner, who would become the most celebrated of the white settlers. However, Conner wouldn’t prove to be a friend to Smith. As the tale continues, a Kentucky land speculator presented Conner with papers that claimed Smith was his property, his slave. Conner didn’t try to dispute the man’s claim, and the speculator was allowed to take Smith away. Smith was never seen in the area again. (6)


Putting Down Roots in Noblesville (1851-1920)


Following Smith’s and Conner’s era, it’s difficult to ascertain the movements of African Americans in and out of Hamilton County until the mid-1830s. That is when free people of color began buying land and established a permanent settlement in Jackson Township. This cluster of pioneer families had traveled west from North Carolina and came to be known as Roberts Settlement.


The 1850 U.S. Census enumerates 15 Black and Mulatto persons (less than 1% of Noblesville Township’s population) living in four separate households within Noblesville Township. Census records indicate that besides Indiana, the settlers’ places of birth were Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Their occupations were listed most often as laborers and servants (household domestics), but little else is known about their lives.


Between 1850 and 1860, more African Americans began arriving in Noblesville in small but significant numbers. The 1860 Census enumerates 111 Black and mixed-race persons in 24 households, representing 3.8% of Noblesville Township’s population. (7) Most inhabitants were from North Carolina and Virginia; others circulated into Noblesville from Roberts Settlement or other places within Hamilton County and Indiana at large. As in the 1850 Census, the 1860 Census listed occupational roles as laborers and domestic workers, with few exceptions.

Thaddeus Winburn (second from the left with his coat draped over his arm) was part of the Winburn family that lived at Roberts Settlement. This photo was taken at the American Strawboard Factory in Noblesville, circa 1910. (Courtesy of Lezli Davis)

The African American population of Noblesville grew steadily through the 1910s. Many of the Black settlers in Noblesville continued to come from other places in Indiana, like Roberts Settlement in Jackson Township, while other families whose birthplaces were in states of the “upper” South — such as North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky — also arrived. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, there were 385 African Americans in Noblesville Township (5.5% of the Noblesville Township population). (8)


Younger generations of African Americans raised on farms, like those at Roberts Settlement, found fewer opportunities to continue farming, in part because suitable, inexpensive land was no longer available. Landowners at Roberts Settlement also could no longer farm profitably on a small scale. These factors, along with the growth of railroads and factories, created a steady demand for laborers to fill these jobs located in Noblesville, so, they followed the work.


As the African American population grew in Noblesville, so did its cohesion as a community. In 1868, the A.M.E. Church moved from the Pleasant Evans farm to a building in the J. R. Gray Addition near Division Street and 14th Street on the east side of Noblesville. The school moved from the Pleasant Evans farm in 1869. The Noblesville Ledger reported that “Noblesville has one of the first, if not the very first, free schools opened under the law passed by the last Legislature. The school was opened on Monday, in the house occupied by the colored Baptist for a meeting house.” (9) African American teachers A.H. Evans and Eva Steward (son and granddaughter of Pleasant Evans), Leroy A. Stokes, Lizzie Cochran, and Marcus Gilliam (of Roberts Settlement) were among the prominent educators at the Noblesville Colored School.

In 1868, the Bethel A.M.E. Church moved from the Pleasant Evans farm to a building in the J. R. Gray Addition near Division Street and 14th Street on the east side of Noblesville. (Courtesy of Tonja Goodloe. Indiana Historical Society, Black Hamilton County #1 Photographs, Documents and Papers, ca. 1849-2020 Collection.)

As ambivalence and sometimes outright hostility toward Blacks continued throughout the area, African Americans were expected to “know their place” and stay there. Custom, prejudice, and outright racism meant that housing, employment, education, and religious and social gatherings were segregated along racial lines. (10)


Glover’s chapter picks up with the story of Hamilton County men of color who were recruited to join African American regiments during the Civil War. Beginning Feb. 1, 2023, “Celebrating Hamilton County, Indiana: 200 Years of Change” will be available for purchase at the Hamilton County Historical Society (Saturdays, 12-5 p.m.). Order online through MT Publishing or Amazon. To dig deeper, mark your calendars for June 29, 2023, for Southern Seeds to Northern Soils: A History of Free People of Color in Indiana at Roberts Settlement.


The Hamilton County Bicentennial is proudly supported by Duke Energy, Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Tourism Inc., and Hamilton County Historical Society.



REFERENCES:

  1. The terms “African American,” “Black,” “Free People of Color,” “Free Black,” “Colored,” “Mulatto,” and “Mixed-race” will appear throughout the narrative. Each of these racialized categories means something different and should be considered in the context used. “African American” refers to Americans of Black African descent. “Black” refers to people of sub-Saharan African descent whose national identity may or may not be American e.g., Jamaican, Kenyan etc. “Free People of Color” refers to people of mixed racial identity e.g., Black, white, and Native American. Free People of Color is primarily used when discussing African American or mixed-race people who were never enslaved. Those who had been enslaved but emancipated by their enslavers are referred to as “free Blacks.” The term “Mixed-race” is used instead of the term Mulatto which was commonly used in the 1800s and early 1900s to refer to people (usually) of mixed Black and white racial identity. Mulatto is used herein when quoted from source materials such as newspapers, books, etc. “Colored” is also a racial category no longer in use but is included in this narrative when quoting from source material, or for historical context.

  2. Thornbrough, Emma Lou. 1957. The Negro in Indiana Before 1900. Indiana Historical Bureau, 20.

  3. Bibbs, Rebecca R. "Indiana criminalized blacks' settlement," Anderson Herald Bulletin, April 03, 2016: https://www.heraldbulletin.com/news/indiana-criminalized-blacks-settlement/article_138b09ec-0820-5b1f-9105-9370107733e4.html.

  4. Heighway, David. 2021. The Mystery of Noblesville's First Settler: Pete Smith. https://www.hepl.lib.in.us/the-mystery-of-noblesvilles-first-settler-pete-smith/.

  5. The 1860 Federal Census Summary reports 111 Blacks and mixed-race persons in Noblesville Township compared to the 107 listed in the detailed enumerated 1860 Federal Census. Our research was unable to determine the reason for this discrepancy.

  6. See population chart: Noblesville Township, Black or African American Population and Total Population Comparisons 1840-2020 included in the Noblesville Township chapter.

  7. “Colored Free Schools,” Noblesville Ledger, September 16, 1869.​​ https://bit.ly/3ouJxpq. The approximate location for the Colored Free School was ascertained by reviewing the church notices in various Noblesville Ledger editions published in 1869. The Noblesville Ledger indicates that the Baptist Church (colored) services took place at “their [Colored] church in the J. L. Evans’ addition.”

  8. Thornbrough, Emma Lou. 2000. Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 6.


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