As Indiana’s first city, Vincennes overflows with significant moments in American history, with records stretching back to at least the early 18th century.
There is a historical treasure trove of newspapers, registries and court cases housed in the McGrady-Brockman House of the Knox County Public Library, including brief glimpses into typical life for African Americans in the early days of the Indiana Territory.
Yet despite this wealth of information, carefully preserved in acid-free archival folders, there’s still a gaping hole in the knowledge of Black History — one caused by erasure and racism.
“A lot of people think there was no slavery here but there was, and it was very prominent,” said library staff member Cindy Frederick, who has spent hundreds of hours working to preserve the county’s early history.
But if a person isn’t viewed as equal by a society’s leaders and laws, their voices and stories are often silenced, and that becomes clear in the collection of records held by KCPL.
Though slavery is not the beginning of Black History, nor a singular defining period, it is where written records of African Americans in Knox County begin.
In 1746 a report on French settlements noted that 40 white men who had enslaved five Black men were residing on the banks of the Wabash River; this document is the first report of Africans or African Americans in the Northwest Territory.
Though slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory — later to become Indiana — leaders like Gov. William Henry Harrison were part of a pro-slavery movement, finding loopholes around laws and ordinances that prevented the practice.
On Dec. 26, 1789, a woman named Francis was at the center of a lawsuit in Knox County between John Small and Luke Decker.
Small sued for $1,200, claiming Decker was knowingly holding a a woman who “belonged” to him.
A piece of brittle paper, more than 230 years old, reads “Small had a Negro wench, Francis or Fanny, valued at eight hundred dollars. He lost the said Negro slave out of his hands and possession, and she came into the hands of Luke Decker by finding.”
A woman of color argued over like a commodity is something one can find several times over in the county’s most historic records.
So, too,‘ is the lack of clear individual identity. Francis, with no surname given, was reduced to “Negro wench” and “slave,” as was common practice.
And in 1801 two men literally sue to be paid in full for having taken a Black man back to his slaveholder.
Noah and Andrew Purcell filed suit against Robert Buntin and Henry Hurst for an unpaid reward for the return of a “fugitive slave,” also referred to merely as “a certain Negro man.”
He had no name, no voice.
Perhaps most painful to review is the largely intact original copy of Knox County’s 1805-1807 slave registry.
The first two pages show a glimpse into the life of a girl simply referred to as Milly.
In 1807, Milly was still just a teenager when Benjamin Price — the man who claimed ownership of her — registered her along with a her son, Aaron, “a mulatto boy of the age of eight, child of the slave named Milly.”
The record gives no account of Milly’s daily existence, but it indicates she was likely raped by a white man when she was still a child and became pregnant, later giving birth to Aaron.
In other cases, there are flickers of images of the indignities African American men and women suffered, particularly if they tried to assert themselves over the most basic of human rights.
Francis Jackson, referred to as “Mule” and “Mulee” was taken to jail in February of 1812, put there by Francis Tisdale who said Jackson “won’t obey her and departed from her unlawfully.”
Jackson was to be jailed until he “humbled himself to his mistress’s satisfaction.”
On record, too, are the contracts of indentured servitude.
In one such contract, a boy of 15 makes “his mark” — a simple X — beneath a contract that binds him to servitude for 90 years. If he could meet the obligations of his contract, he would know freedom when he turned 105.
A 3-year-old little girl is taken from her mother, Lucy, so she can be used as a spinster to spin wool.
A man named Peter tries to complete his indenture contract in exchange for land, but the landowner found a way to rob Peter of what he was owed after 14 years of hard labor.
The cases of injustice and depravity seem to go on and on.
And while most of early Knox County history is likely very white-centric, and therefore erases much of the contributions and culture of African Americans in the 18th century, there still remains at least a few powerful stories of hope and inspiration.
Frederick and her colleague, Ann Hecht, say that while old records clearly show the terrible reality of this facet of local history, they get a burst of joy when they get to archive a story of freedom.
“What’s so neat is how many people worked to get their freedom and that of their children,” said Hecht. “They worked so hard to get their kids. It’s remarkable — the spunk and perseverance they had to do it.”
A man named Ned often found himself in trouble with the law for stealing fabric from prominent citizens in Vincennes, records show. Once he was even accused of stealing William Henry Harrison’s shirts straight off the clothesline.
Frederick explains that fabric would have been very valuable, a helpful commodity Ned couldn’t have afforded.
Somehow Ned eventually saved enough money to buy his freedom — possibly by stealing and selling the clothes of the very people who enslaved him.
And there is John Morris, who was once enslaved but now has a residence hall on Vincennes University’s campus named in his honor.
In 1809, Morris became a charter member of the Maria Creek Church and helped draft the church’s Articles of Faith.
Morris and the other dozen charter members wrote of slavery as “unjust in its origin, oppressive in its consequences, and inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel.”
And while oppressive and antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel, the practice of slavery still endured for years in Knox County.
But enduring, too, was the spirit and faith of men and women of color.