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Enduring stories of strength

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.

Saying 'I do'

Jenna Ridge thought maybe she wanted a big wedding, but as she gave it more and more consideration, the reasons against it kept piling up.

“I just thought, ‘Why?’ ” she said from inside Knox County Circuit Court Friday afternoon, a twinkle light and tulle-wrapped arch illuminating the space behind her. “We’ve been together eight years. We have a child. I decided I’d rather spend the money on something else, maybe a trip later.

“That and I always had a fear of tripping as I walked down the aisle,” she said with a smirk.

Her now husband, Shane Ridge, didn’t much care either. He just wanted the date itself to have special meaning.

They finally settled on a simple ceremony at the courthouse, and when they called a month ago to schedule the date, County Clerk David Shelton had the perfect compromise — Weddingpalooza, an inaugural wedding marathon to celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to love.

“So we figured, ‘why not?’ ” Jenna said with a shrug of her slight shoulders.

Shelton took office little more than two years ago.

He got his first request to perform a wedding ceremony about four months into his first year.

“I didn’t even know it was part of the job — or could be,” he said.

Turns out, he loved it. So he kept doing it. Currently, he averages about two ceremonies per week; in nice weather, he performs them out on the courthouse lawn.

So far, he’s done 125 total.

“I just get a kick out of it,” he said, “to be part of someone’s joyous occasion, a small part, at least.”

Shelton said when the pandemic began in March, he started seeing an uptick in the number of requests he received.

As COVID-19 shuttered businesses and prevented any kind of large-scale affairs, couples looked to something more simple.

“A lot of people in the last year have had to put their plans on hold,” he said. “This at least gives them the opportunity to tie the knot now. And, hopefully, when the pandemic passes, they can have their big event.”

So weeks ago, as Valentine’s Day approached, Shelton thought he’d open the Friday before up to any couples interested in getting married. He reserved Circuit Court, even hung some decorations.

“I wanted to do something big,” he said, adding that he had hoped to do 25 ceremonies in one day.

In the end, he did five — which broke his previous single day record by one ceremony.“And maybe next year, I’ll do more,” he said hopefully. “Next year, Valentine’s Day will be on a Monday.

“So we’ll see what we can do.”

More winter weather?

Another major winter storm could move through South Central Indiana on Sunday night, but its exact timing and impact remain uncertain.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis are encouraging Hoosiers to be mindful of the forecast this weekend in preparation for what may come.

“There is just a lot of uncertainty right now in terms of how this is going to play out,” said Jason Puma with the NWS. “This is a developing situation, so people really need to be paying attention to the forecast and be willing to make adjustments to their plans as necessary to stay safe.”

Meteorologists say they are keeping a close eye on a system that will begin moving across Indiana from the west. The current forecast calls for its arrival late Sunday and continuing through the day on Monday.

Snow chances for this area right now, Puma said, are at 60-70%.

The chance for accumulating snow is likely — some areas of Indiana could see as much as another six inches of snow — but exactly where those heaviest bands will cross is still uncertain.

“But some areas, possibly your area, could see some shovel-worthy snow, several inches,” Puma said.

“But should that system track a little farther to the north or south, that would greatly impact how much snow different areas will receive. We are in the ‘stay-tuned’ phase of the forecast right now.”

Puma said should the NWS see that Knox County will be heavily impacted by this system — meaning six inches of accumulation or more is possible — they will likely issue a Winter Storm Warning, but that hasn’t been done yet.

“Because we just don’t have enough certainty right now in anything to start issuing that sort of thing,” he said.

One certainty, however, is the bitter cold temperatures that will enter the area.

Today is expected to be the warmest for awhile, reaching a high of 21 degrees.

Temperatures will then drop again overnight, reaching a low of just 11 degrees.

Sunday’s high will be around 18 degrees then it gets even colder on Monday, with a high expected of 13 degrees and a low around 7.

Tuesday, too, looks to be in the single digits.

As the cold weather bears down on much of southern Indiana, fire officials have warned against the dangers associated with secondary heating sources. Never leave them unattended, don’t place them near flammable materials like bedding or curtains, and now is the time to make sure all smoke and CO2 detectors are in working order.

Snow returns to the forecast, Puma said, on Wednesday and Thursday; currently there is a 30% and 50% chance of precipitation on those days respectively.

And while total snow accumulations remain uncertain, the one thing residents here can count on, Puma said, is for the cold to stick around, likely through the end of the month.

“We’re really in a cold period,” he said. “We’re not going to see temperatures even above freezing through at least next Friday. So whatever snow you do get as part of these two systems will stick around.

“You aren’t going to see any warm air for awhile to provide melting.”