Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series commemorating Black History Month and celebrating African American history here in Indiana’s oldest city. Look for the second installment in next weekend’s edition of the Sun-Commercial.
In everything from social and political policies to history textbooks and the cannon of American literature, the nation has long defaulted to white normativity, pushing the voices and concerns of minority groups aside.
Black History Month, which started as Negro History Week in 1926, was one of the earliest efforts to change that by drawing attention to the untold stories of the greatness of Black men and women — acts all too often left out of textbooks.
Knox County is no exception to the inspirational stories of the greatness of Black Americans who changed the course of history through their actions, ensuring the generations that followed them would live better lives.
Vanessa Purdom, who spent nearly a decade at the helm of Vincennes University’s legal studies department, says that for Knox County to progress and be the best version of itself, diversity and an understanding of local history are vital components.
“We need to understand the history of the area and that there were pivotal African Americans and legal cases here. These individuals and their cases marked history for the entire state,” she said.
As Indiana’s oldest city, African American history here predates statehood itself; Vincennes is actually recorded as the first site in the state to report African Americans in its population.
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.
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.
According to local historian Richard Day, part of Harrison’s motive was to entice people from the border state of Kentucky to cross the river and settle in and populate Indiana — something that could greatly improve development and the economy.
“But Kentucky was a slave state,” said Day, so those individuals would want to bring the enslaved with them.
While many whites in Knox County and across the state found ways to manipulate laws and circumstances in order to continue enslaving people of color, in the early 1820s, two incredibly brave women helped to change that.
Polly Strong was a young African American woman living in servitude to prominent community leader and innkeeper Hyacinthe Lasselle.
Strong was born into slavery in 1796 in the Northwest Territory. At the age of 10, she was purchased by Lasselle, a Vincennes resident.
The original contract of indentured servitude between Strong and Lasselle, as well as court documents associated with Strong’s attempts to secure her own freedom were discovered in a cardboard box by county clerk David Shelton in 2019.
Dated July 16, 1818, the first page of the contract reads: “Polly, called Polly Strong, to Indenture Hyacinthe Lasselle of Servitude for 12 years.”
Day says most contracts of servitude in the area averaged around 14 years but could be as long as 99 years.
“And it’s obviously unlikely that most people could outlive that contract,” he said.
The handwritten contract, which is still clearly legible, at times claims that Strong was “contented” in her life as a slave to Lasselle.
But Strong, who was illiterate, would have likely signed the indentured servitude contract under duress, as most did at that time, often out of fear that they would be sent down river to southern slave-holding states with no chance of future freedom.
Because slavery was outlawed in the Indiana Territory, contracts of indentured servitude were drawn up as loopholes around the law.
Some documentation indicates Strong was abducted by one of Lasselle’s associates and taken to Illinois until she finally relented and accepted the terms of indentured servitude.
As she couldn’t sign her name, Strong simply made an ‘X’ near the bottom of her contract, with a witness writing next to it “her mark.”
Strong did indeed make her mark.
She went to the local Circuit Court two years later, in 1820, in pursuit of freedom.
The Indiana Constitution of 1816 prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. Lasselle argued that because Strong’s mother, Jenny, was born into slavery, as was Strong herself, that the constitutional law didn’t apply because the women were living the lives they were born into.
Sadly, the Knox County Circuit Court ruled that Strong, as the child of legal slaves, was, therefore, legally enslaved herself.
In the Court’s decision, it was stated that, “In all states where slavery is tolerated and people of color are held as property, this is undeniably the fact … I know of no reason why it should not be the case here.”
Strong, as her name implies, persisted after the Circuit Court loss. She and her attorney, Armory Kinney, appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, and Strong eventually won her right to freedom in July of 1820.
Despite being a groundbreaking case, Purdom says most of her students at VU had never heard of Polly Strong before stepping into her classroom.
“My legal studies students felt a little jilted about never having heard about these cases; some were angry,” Purdom said.
But, after reading and studying Strong’s case, they were also inspired by what they saw.
As for what became of Polly Strong later in life, it’s unfortunately unclear. Other than a baptismal record at St. Francis Xavier Church from 1819, and a notice in the Vincennes Western Sun in 1824 that she had a letter waiting for her at the post office, there is no other record of the brave, trailblazing Strong.
Her Indiana Supreme Court case however set the new standard of authority on similar habeas corpus cases that would follow in Indiana, including Mary Bateman Clark’s case in Knox County the following year.
In 1821, Clark, who was around 20 years old at the time, successfully sued for her freedom from indentured servitude, citing Indiana’s recently adopted constitution’s prohibitions of the practice, and the state Supreme Court eventually ruled in her favor.
Clark’s was the second landmark case brought before the Supreme Court by black women from Knox County, and has been cited dozens of times since in court cases that review the legalities of contract law and personal service.
Clark, like Strong, won her case, and today a historical marker dedicated to Clark sits outside the Knox County Courthouse.
While Black history is American history, February is a time for the education and celebration of Black American culture.
Without the immense risks taken by relative unknown figures like Clark and Strong, demanding better — demanding the human right of freedom — we couldn’t today celebrate the many contributions of people of color who followed in their trailblazing footsteps.
Members of the Knox County Development Corp. continue to invest in a mini-park inside the larger U.S. 41 Industrial Park, believing it an important part of a healthy portfolio of economic opportunity.
It’s been nearly four years since KCDC members opted to move ahead with the establishment of 50 acres as a sort of mini industrial park, and while there have been no purchase agreements signed so far, KCDC CEO Chris Pfaff said there have been prospects.
And they want to be ready.
“We’ve had a couple of tire kickers that have been looking at the mini park,” Pfaff said. “So as we think about the infrastructure that will be necessary there, we just want to be prepared.”
The KCDC first voted to set aside 50 acres inside the industrial park along Elkhorn Road as a kind of mini-park in the spring of 2017. They wanted to offer a portion of the 100 or so available shovel-ready acres up to smaller businesses — ones who were looking to expand but didn’t need dozens of acres like nearby Futaba Indiana of America or Farbest Foods Inc.
No one has yet come forward and wanted to buy, but the KCDC continues to invest. In September, the KCDC’s Executive Committee awarded a contract for $218,500 to Knox County’s own Wabash Utilities for the installation of a new 8-inch sanitary sewer line to serve the area.
There’s been talk, too, of the construction of a cul-de-sac road that would connect any businesses who opted to locate there.
And on Friday, during the KCDC’s board of director’s regular meeting, this month held via Zoom, they discussed the possibility of moving ahead with having an appraisal of the area so they know better how much each lot would be worth.
“That way we would have a good idea in our mind,” said KCDC board chairman Craig Kirk. “Is $20,000 an acre reasonable? Or should we be looking at a higher value when we go to negotiate?”
Having such information, too, Kirk pointed out, would help guide the KCDC in terms of any future investments in infrastructure there.
“And we wouldn’t be looking at local land (comparisons),” he said, “but taking a regional and statewide approach as far as other industrial parks.”
But it’s only a proposal, for now, Pfaff said.
The Site Development Committee is recommending the KCDC move forward with the appraisal, but the measure will first need to be approved by the KCDC’s Executive Committee.
But Pfaff, too, believes it a good idea.
“It’s the importance of knowing the value of what you own,” he said.
Having the availability of smaller lots — ones anywhere from 2 to 5 acres, depending on the business’ need — also makes the county more attractive to a variety of potential industry and business.
It’s the same reason the organization, too, is investigating the possible construction of a shell building.
The Site Development Committee in December met with Terre Haute-based Garmong Construction to discuss a shell building — also called a “spec” building — which is an economic development tool becoming increasingly popular with site selectors across the state.
The KCDC has about 100 shovel-ready acres for sale in the industrial park, but no shell building.
Existing inventory of large, industrial-size empty business space, too, is basically nonexistent in Knox County, officials have said.
The last time the organization reportedly built a shell building was years ago; it would later house Essex Wire until it closed in 2008.
But whether it’s a shell building or ample acres on which to build, the more diversified options Knox County has to offer, the better.
Pfaff, too, said in the few months he’s been here, he’s also worked with private land owners in terms of helping businesses find exactly what they need.
A company may come here to look at one possibility and end up going with something else entirely.
Either way, Knox County benefits.
“It’s about finding for them the very best fit,” he said.
Break out the long johns because it’s about to get cold — really cold.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service say extremely cold air from above northern parts of Canada is making its way here, bringing with it temperatures in the single digits by the middle of the next week.
“That whole air mass has shifted south from where it normally sits this time of the year,” said Chad Swain, an NWS meteorologist in Indianapolis. “And it’s going to keep us in the cold for awhile.”
Seasonal temperatures for early February tend to be highs in the 40s, lows in the 20s, Swain said, and while today isn’t expected to be too cold at a forecasted 34 degrees, temperatures will then quickly drop.
“That cold air is going to start moving in Saturday night,” he said. “You’ll see a low of 10 degrees as you head into Sunday morning.
“And Sunday’s (high) temperatures will only climb into the lower 20s.”
Recent windy conditions will improve, he said, but there will be a steady breeze that comes with the colder air — enough to bring wind chill factors near zero degrees.
Monday, Swain said, will bring a brief warmup as the forecasted high is 32 degrees, or right at freezing.
“That’s still cooler than normal,” he said of February’s seasonal temperatures, “but that cold air will come back in again by the middle of next week, with temperatures in the single digits by Wednesday night.”
The high Wednesday is expected to be just 17 degrees; the low will likely plummet to just 5.
Thursday’s high is expected to just be 12 degrees with an accompanying low of 2.
And Friday it gets even colder, with the high expected to be 7 degrees with a low of minus 1.
The cold then sticks around well into the extended forecast.
“You’ll have that at least through next week, probably longer,” Swain said. “The outlook for the month February calls for lower than usual temperatures.”
Meteorologists aren’t, however, calling for any major snow events as part of this cold air mass.
Residents here could see some snow showers early this morning and tonight, but at most the NWS is calling for an inch or less of total accumulation.
“(Snow) chances return to the forecast early next week, but it’s just too far out to tell how much right now,” he said.
The NWS hasn’t issued any cold weather warnings as of yet, but Swain still encouraged people to be careful.
“By the middle of next week, you’re going to have lows in the single digits and wind chill factors below that,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to be outside for very long.”
Tim Smith, chief of the Vincennes Township Fire Department, said caution should be used with dealing with this kind of cold.
It’s always a good idea, he said, to make sure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors — any detector more than ten years old should be replaced — and secondary heating sources, things like space heaters and electric blankets, should be used carefully.
“Pull those away from any combustible material, and I recommend they not be used as a primary source of heat for the home, only as supplemental heat,” he said. “Never go off and leave it on, and be mindful of pets that they don’t knock it over or a young child who could pull it over on top of them.”
Smith, too, said space heaters should never be plugged into a power strip or extension chord, only directly into the wall itself.
As for electric blankets, make sure they are safety rated and bear the UL or ETL mark. Smith also recommends they be no more than 10 years old as the wiring can become worn.
Be careful of pets, too, who can tear the fabric and expose the wiring.
Smith also warned against heat lamps used outdoors to keep pets warm; it’s best to bring them inside.
Heat lamps can be used, but residents should be mindful, he said, as fires can quickly spread to the primary living space.
Local emergency response officials also commonly warn people to stay off ice during the bitter cold; just because a small pond or lake looks to be frozen over doesn’t mean the ice is deep enough to hold your weight.