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Fraternity Founder and Historian of Black History Hailing From Hamilton County

Lezli Davis was one of many contributors to Celebrating Hamilton County, Indiana: 200 Years of Change. Here, we share two of her stories about notable African American figures who shaped our community — and beyond.


Byron Kenneth Armstrong, 1892-1980


Dr. Byron Kenneth Armstrong is internationally celebrated for being one of the ten founders of the historically African American fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, organized at Indiana University in 1911. (1) He was born in Westfield, Indiana, on April 8, 1892 to Marzilla “Mollie” (Winburn), a descendant of the nearby farming community Roberts Settlement, and Thomas Armstrong, a son of former slaves who relocated from Missouri to Westfield around 1870. He was Claude Armstrong’s younger brother and a first cousin to Irven Armstrong, an early initiate and organizer of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, whose family also lived nearby in the Westfield community. (2)

In 1909, Byron graduated from the Quaker-ran Union High School located in Westfield where he was a member of the debate team. (3) In September 1909, he entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., transferring to Indiana University a year later. (4) He participated in the Economics and Philosophy Club while at IU and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1913. (5) Byron immediately entered Columbia University, where in 1914 he obtained a Master of Arts degree. In 1938, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Education from the University of Michigan. (6)

Dr. Byron Kenneth Armstrong is internationally celebrated for being one of the ten founders of the historically African American fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, organized at Indiana University in 1911.

During his working career, he had teaching assignments in several states, including Oklahoma where he served as Dean of the School of Education at Langston University from 1921 to 1927 and from 1931 to 1935. (7) Later, he entered the business world, working 22 years for Chrysler Motor Company, where he acted as personnel director until 1962. In addition to his professional accomplishments, he helped his fraternity establish undergraduate and graduate chapters on various campuses and cities, assisted in the writing of the Kappa Handbook, authored Crossing Jordan and Beyond, a first-person narrative of the organization’s early beginnings, and was editor of The Kappa Alpha Psi Journal. His fraternity peers lauded him as “a scholar, imaginative and outspoken.” (8)


His daughter, Marzella, was the first documented person of color born at Hamilton County Hospital on August 13, 1916. (9) Byron died on June 28, 1980, in Los Angeles and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Los Angeles, California. (10)


Coy Robbins, Jr., 1920-2002


Coy Daniel Robbins, Jr., a 1937 graduate of Noblesville High School and World War II veteran, pursued a higher educational path at Indiana University, which culminated with a master’s degree in 1951. For nearly 28 years, he practiced as a psychiatric social worker at the university. (11) In addition to his professional accomplishments, what is most remembered about Coy is his commitment to expanding the research and educating the public about the histories and genealogies of the early Black pioneers who settled in Indiana.

Coy Robbins pictured during the 1997 Glenn, Glover White Reunion of Old Sheridan, Forest Park Shelter. (Photo courtesy Lezli Davis)

Inspired in 1976 by Alex Haley’s book, "Roots," an epic saga about African slavery in the United States, Coy began collecting and documenting information about his ancestors who migrated to the Westfield area from Guilford County, North Carolina after the Civil War. (12) Later, he expanded his research to Southern Indiana and published several books about the lives of the early Black settlers, which included information about their land ownership, cemeteries, churches, military service, etc.

Inspired in 1976 by Alex Haley’s "Roots," Coy began collecting and documenting information about his ancestors who migrated to the Westfield area from Guilford County, NC, after the Civil War.

In 1988, he established the Indiana Chapter of the African American Historical and Genealogical Society and edited its newsletter, Ebony Lines. Coy was always willing to share the information that he acquired, hopeful that it may “serve to inspire others to become interested in researching the history of their African American ancestors in Indiana …” (13) In the late 1990s, he systematically documented local histories of longtime Black residents of Hamilton County by compiling group sheets and pedigree charts based on vital records, oral history interviews that he conducted, and distributed his detailed research to descendants. His work eventually became a building block in the construction of my family tree.


Coy’s genealogical and history data publications, journal articles and books continue to be sought-after reference materials by those in pursuit of information and understanding regarding early Black heritage in Indiana. His passion for his research left a lasting imprint, as it inspired me to study Black history within the framework of American history.



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. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. “A Brief History.” https://kappaalphapsi1911.com/page/History, accessed February 22, 2022.

  2. Coy Robbins. 1984. Black Heritage in Westfield, Indiana, 9.

  3. The Hamilton County Ledger. May 7, 1907, 2; The Hamilton County Times. September 17, 1909.

  4. B. K. Armstrong. 1953.Crossing The Jordan and Beyond, 2.

  5. Ancestry, U.S. School Yearbooks, 1880-2012, Arbutus 1913, 275.

  6. Columbia University, and W. J Maxwell. 1916. Catalogue of Officers and Graduates of Columbia University from the Foundation of King's College In 1754. New York: The University, 997; Verified by Office of the Registrar at the University of Michigan, November 16, 2021 via Email correspondence.

  7. Ballard, Jessica. “Diversity in the Historical Record- The Dean of Faculty Records. Indiana University Archives. https://blogs.libraries.indiana.edu/iubarchives/2017/02/, accessed February 21, 2022.

  8. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. “Our Founders.” https://kappaalphapsi1911.com/page/Founders, accessed February 21, 2022.

  9. The Noblesville Ledger, August 14, 1916, 3.

  10. California, U.S., Death Index, 1940-1997 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: available at Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2000, accessed on February 22, 2022.

  11. “Coy Daniels Robbins Jr., 82 wrote about black heritage.” Indianapolis Star, November 3, 2002, 32.

  12. Coy Robbins. 1984. Black Heritage in Westfield Indiana. 1984, Indiana Historical Society, 12.

  13. Coy Robbins. 1994. Forgotten Hoosiers, African Heritage In Orange County, Indiana, IX-X, Westminster, MD: Heritage Books.







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