Working at the McGrady-Brockman House, 614 N. Seventh St., has offered me opportunities to meet many interesting and unique individuals.
It’s not unusual to talk with people from all over the country trying to find their family’s history or are doing historical research. One interesting person I had the pleasure to meet was Anna-Lisa Cox, Ph.D., a fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. She called the McGrady-Brockman House one day looking for information on African Americans living in the Northwest and later Indiana Territories. We discussed the Northwest Ordinance's Article 6 which outlawed slavery and the loophole of the Indenture Act, that kept African Americans as virtual slaves by indenturing them up to ninety years. She was surprised that our library had a slave registry and requested I send her a copy.
A year or so later, she called and said she had published a book entitled, "The Bone and Sinew of the Land America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers & The Struggle for Equality." The book had recently been honored by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of its eight best history books of 2018. Her connection to the Smithsonian also extended to her consulting on exhibitions at the new Smithsonian African American History and Culture Museum. Prof. Cox was going to be in the area and wanted to meet with me! She was giving a lecture at Lyles Station in Gibson County and another lecture for the Lawrence County Historical Society in Lawrenceville, Illinois, to discuss her book.
The book included information that she received from McGrady-Brockman resources and included history regarding African Americans in Knox, Gibson, Daviess, and Vanderburgh counties in Indiana and Lawrence County in Illinois during the 19th Century. I attended one of her lectures and she gave me a copy of the book that included the story of Jacob Hawkins, one of the individuals listed in the Knox County Slave Registry.
The book, "The Bone and Sinew of the Land," is a very enjoyable history of the migration of free Blacks into the Northwest and Indiana territories seeking to enjoy the promise of freedom from slavery, the right to vote, and the opportunity to farm and build a future for their families. It focuses on a very enlightening history of the Grier, Lyle, and Hawkins families and their struggles as African American farmers in the early to mid 1800s. These families are still to be found in Knox, Daviess, and Gibson counties. Her descriptions of trying to clear 40 acres of virgin forest land with oxen, helps to bring frontier life alive.
Pioneer Blacks had to face the same struggles as my pioneer grandfathers, but also had to deal with prejudice, loss of voting rights, loss of equality, and sometimes freedom. Once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, in 1850, free Blacks risked being kidnapped and being sold as slaves into slave states. Each of the families she details have wonderful survival stories of endurance, strength and strong familial bonds. It is amazing that many individuals were able to work to purchase their own freedom and then return to their masters and purchase parents, wives, children, or siblings.
Her stories of the Underground Railroad and the dangers imposed on both the conductors and passengers are nerve racking. The conductors’ willingness to put themselves at great risk to help slaves is an inspiration. They were true heroes of their times. The slaves’ courage to fight for their freedom and the freedom of their loved ones should be repeated to all in search of a better life.
Recently, two of the families, the Griers and Stormonts, were designated by the National Parks Service as integral to the Underground Railroad. This designation was initiated by Prof. Cox. "The Bone and Sinew of the Land" is now on the Daughters of the American Revolution reading list and may be borrowed from the Knox County Public Library.
If you’re interested in farming, history, freedom, and overcoming the odds, I would recommend you read this book and visit the McGrady-Brockman House for further tales of history.