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Clark County

African American rural settlements documented: 2 

Clark County had a large African American population prior to the Civil War. At least two black rural settlements were established by 1870. One settlement, known as Africa, was associated with the village of Memphis in Union Township. The other rural settlement, name unknown, was associated with the village of Watson in Utica Township. 

As a whole, the 19th century African American population of Clark County was significant and rather widely distributed throughout the county. Carl Kramer’s description of the county as “a major black population center” (p 120) provides insight into the challenges of the research process. As in the case of Marion County, issues include trying to frame and define the standard of rural and urban settlement and the challenges of gathering scant bits of information on the African American presence from varied sources. Clark County, one of the earliest sites of European settlement in Indiana, presents a particular challenge in defining an independent rural settlement as opposed to a neighborhood, suburb, or community within a larger context. 

In 1810, Clark County’s population included 40 free people of color and 81 slaves (Kramer p 72). In these early days of the region, slave owners circumvented the prohibition against slavery by indentures. Emma Lou Thornbrough documents 32 such indentures involving 36 individuals, the majority of whom were from Kentucky. Although there was a strong practice of slave holding among white settlers in Clark County, there was also forceful opposition, including Underground Railroad activity.

In the ensuing decades, Clark County continued to have one of the largest black populations in the state. With a count of 138 African Americans in 1820, Clark ranked second only to Knox County in black population. Although population in the county continued to increase steadily (with the exception of a small drop in the 1860 census), Clark’s black population was superseded by rapid growth in counties where there was a strong Quaker presence. Clark County’s black population increased from 520 in 1860 to 1,970 in 1870, an increase of 278.8 percent. Growth slowed in the next decade rising to 2,536 (28.7 percent). Clark County ranked as the third largest black population of Indiana’s counties exceeded only by Marion & Vanderburgh Counties (Kramer p 174). 

In contrast to other counties with large African American populations, black residents of Clark County ranked relatively low in terms of land ownership. Herbert Heller examined black land holdings for the year 1850. Of the top nine counties, Clark ranked last with 24 African American property owners. Holdings were valued at $10,240 in 1850 (Thornbrough p140). The number of opportunities for employment in industrial enterprises may have been a factor in the lower numbers of black landowners. 

Data extracted from the 1870 census indicates that most African American men found employment as farm laborers or general laborers. There are far fewer black or mulatto farmers. Other occupations reported include barber, plasterer, painter, carpenter, teamster, stone mason, railroad worker, boat steward, boat porter, wood cutter, and butcher.  Black female heads of households are most often listed as “keeping house” with a significant number of women listing their employment as washerwomen. (Hannah Toliver, 44 years old in the 1870 census, is enumerated as a washerwoman. Her anti-slavery activities are commemorated with an historic marker in Jeffersonville.)  

The majority of heads of black households give Kentucky as place of nativity with Indiana nativity as strong second. Other states of origin include Ohio, the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland, Alabama, and Mississippi. William Washington, a 25 year old mulatto farmer, gives Canada as his place of birth. Family names include Thornton, Mitchum/Michum, Washington, Smith, McCoy, Bland, Tandy, Wilson, Hardin, Russell, Henson, Gill, Slaughter, Clemens, Bibb, Taylor, Kiphart and Hampton.

Union Township, Africa

The African American settlement associated with the village of Memphis was known as Africa. Memphis was laid out in 1852 at the crossing of Blue Lick Road and the railroad tracks. A contemporary informant stated that historically major components of commerce in the town included mills, cooperages and the manufacture of staves. It was indicated that African Americans were not employed in those industries but worked instead as farm laborers. Unfortunately the microfilm for Union Township is almost illegible. making it difficult to extract much information given limitations of time. The index to the 1870 census lists 20 households headed by African Americans and 1 white household with African American members. Occupations are almost exclusively laborer or farm laborer. The nativity of black residents conforms to that of Clark County in general. Kentucky leads as place of birth with Indiana a close second. Other states include Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. Family names include Scott, Montgomery, Hansberry, Helm, Tyler, Blakemore, Adams Bibb, Jefferson, Ball and Blakey. 

Memphis maintained two schools—one for white students and one for “colored” students. Of the approximately 100 students, about a quarter of them were black.  Black Methodists and black Baptists held joint services in their school-house. A cemetery was begun about 1840 in a “private yard” belonging to a Mr. Weir. African Americans buried their dead in a half acre area “alongside” the Weir yard. It was reported to be “handsomely situated and neatly fenced.”

Utica Township, Watson

The unnamed African American settlement associated with the village of Watson was located along the Utica-Sellersburg Road. The village of Watson itself had its origins with the relocation of a cement mill to a spot near the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. Watson was formally platted in 1876 with the objective of providing housing for workers at the mill. While a number of small towns in Utica Township were hostile to African Americans (e.g. the towns of Utica with sunset laws), Watson was described in a newspaper account as “a harboring place for them [African Americans] in considerable numbers.” 

Many of the residents of the Watson settlement were farm laborers or ordinary laborers. Of the 33 black heads of households in the township, there was only a single black farmer: Lowry Straws, a 43 year old man from Kentucky. Straws is enumerated with property valued at just over $1000. The index to the 1870 census lists 15 white heads of households whose households included black members. The County Historian related that a number of African Americans worked at the Fry settlement, a farm owned by white people about 2 miles from the village of Watson on the Utica-Sellersburg Road. One of the farm hands, Reuben Johnson, was arrested in the 1850s for aiding people fleeing slavery and later served with the 108th Colored Infantry of Kentucky. Family names include Mitchem, Hawkins, Kiphart, Carter, Straws, Johnson, Hampton, Steers, Haydon/Hayden, Mattox, and Dorsey.

Although Watson was a small municipality, there was a white school and a “colored” school.  About forty students attended the colored school. Watson also had two Sunday schools—“white and colored”, as well as an African Methodist Church. Briar Hill Cemetery has been identified as an African American burial place. The Clark County historian stated that a tombstone for a Civil War veteran named McCormick was found at Briar Hill. African American residents also chartered an Odd Fellows’ lodge.

The following township descriptions illustrate where else in Clark County African Americans settled. Many of these places appear to be neighborhoods in towns or cities prior to 1870. 

Jeffersonville Township

The large majority of Clark County’s black residents lived in Jeffersonville Township either in Jeffersonville proper or in towns, communities and neighborhoods associated with Jeffersonville and Clarksville as well as smaller nearby municipalities. 

Jeffersonville (Town)

The black population of Jeffersonville was large enough to result in the development of institutions such as the First Colored Baptist Church organized about 1861 by Philip Simcoe (located on Illinois Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets). Simcoe also organized Second Colored Baptist (located at the intersection of Indiana Avenue and Sixth Street) about 1865 following a split from First Baptist. Wesleyan Methodists began worship in Jeffersonville following the Civil War eventually moving from a modest frame building to a new structure in 1876 south of the community of Claysburg on Watt Street. Educational aspirations were fulfilled at Jeffersonville Colored High School established as early as 1872; renamed Taylor High School in 1924 to honor a beloved principal. In 1878 Prince Hall Masons chartered North Star Lodge No. 3. at 801 Spring Street. 

Other Communities in Jefferson Communities

Although other writers often use the word “settlement” in reference to a range of communities/neighborhoods, without more detailed study and documentation, I hesitate to classify these communities as such.  A list of black and/or racially mixed communities with descriptions follows. 

Guinea Bottom or Guinea Bottoms

Located near the western edge of Clarksville; adjoins the B&O railroad. 

As early as 1802 or 1803 “influential pioneer families” quartered their slaves in this low, swampy area. Jeffersonville newspapers in the 19th century reported that General George Rogers Clark “brought the first colored family to Indiana, Uncle Tom and Aunt Esther, with twelve children, whom he settled in a spot called Guinea Bottom.” General Clark’s farm on outlot 127 encompassed a portion of Guinea Bottom.  News accounts also mention “the Goodwins brought the second colored family as slaves and settled them in Guinea Bottom” The article continues with the dubious claim “ …and so formed the first Negro settlement” [in Indiana]; then, hedging, they make a possible exception for Vincennes. 

Ben and Venus McGee are better documented as being among the first residents of Guinea Bottom. Records exist showing that Ben McGee was “once enslaved by the Clark family” (Brown p34). Documents in the Kentucky Archives record Ben McGee’s manumission on December 10, 1802, and his subsequent indenture papers signed one day later. Rob Loy/Lloyd, a free man of color, was another early resident. 

In 1905, the town of Clarksburg, in an “…effort to create a pure white city…” attempted to expel its black residents by “…de-annexing Guinea Bottoms where most lived.” By 1940, Clarksville was “devoid” of African Americans (Kramer p257). 

Jeanne Burke, Clark County Historian, is of the opinion that a strong case could be made for classifying Guinea Bottom as a rural settlement for a part of its existence. Clearly, this is an important subject that needs additional research.

Claysburg

Platted in 1856 by Dr. Nathaniel Field (a noted white abolitionist), William Riddle and Edward Schon.

Named for Cassius M. Clay, a Kentucky abolitionist.

Walter K. Kiser uses the terms “surburb [sic] of Jeffersonville” and “a separate section from Jeffersonville” and states that “Claysburg is largely a colored settlement.”  Eventually became Jeffersonville’s “largest black neighborhood” (Kramer p139). 

Many of the African Americans residing in Claysburg found employment with the railroad company and other nearby industries.

Residents established Bethel AME Church as early as 1842. Other African American churches included Trinity Baptist (15th and Spring Streets), Gilt Edge Baptist (Green Street), Indiana Baptist and Walnut Ridge Baptist.

Claysburg schools were segregated with separate white and “colored” schools. A park, U.S. Negro Enterprise Association Park, also known as Beech Grove Park, was established. Other institutions were segregated as well including the Dixie Theater and a separate grocery store. Many restaurants and other public accommodations refused service to African Americans. Claysburg was eventually annexed to the city of Jeffersonville in 1948.

Lick Skillet

Lick Skillet was the colloquial name for the Lattimer & Savage Subdivision of the town of Port Fulton. Victor Neff laid out Port Fulton in 1835 about a mile and a half upstream from Jeffersonville’s Spring Street (Kramer p100-101). “Leap frog growth became a characteristic pattern of development in Jeffersonville and Clark Co” (Kramer p 100). Port Fulton was bounded by the river, Jackson Street, Division Street. The town attracted ship builders and others associated with maritime industries. Saloons were plentiful. Lick Skillet itself was prone to flooding. During the 1960s Port Fulton was the subject of large scale urban renewal projects. 

Other Communities in Jeffersonville Township/Jeffersonville (Town)

Bucktown: an area west of Jeffersonville, needs further documentation.

Cementville: village six miles north of Jeffersonville developed around cement industry; needs further documentation. 

Gibsonville: a “small settlement east of Downtown Jeffersonville” (Kramer, p311). According to Clark County historian it was a disparaging name for Claysburg’s Watt Street intended to convey exaggerated status. Mentioned in Jeffersonville newspaper accounts as early as 1873; has news brief in 1887 on topic of church rally held by Pastor E. Miller. 

Prison Hill: a “predominately black neighborhood” in Jeffersonville and notable victim of I-65 development c. 1956” (Kramer p 412). County historian locates the neighborhood east of the Colgate Palmolive building and considered the area racially mixed. 

Sand Hill: Rural area east of Port Fulton along 8th Street/Middle Road. Small farms with sandy soil. Family names from 20th century include James, Lee and Lindsay. Sand Hill was considered an integrated area. 

Sassiegamus (also spelled Sassygamus): associated with Jeffersonville Springs founded in 1819 by Swiss immigrant John Fischli. Many patrons of the springs were attracted by opportunities to gamble (Kramer p 144-115). It is assumed that this neighborhood housed the black employees of the resort. 

Slabtown: located “below the bridge fill"; also known as West End and Egypt. Clark County historian places it west of Jeffersonville and east of the Colgate Palmolive building. She indicated that it was a racially mixed neighborhood and the name Egypt derived from darker skin tones in the population. 

Charlestown Township, Charlestown (Town)

In analyzing population trends of Indiana’s 19th century “nonrural communities,” Emma Lou Thornbrough includes the town of Charlestown as one of eight towns in the state designated as nonrural with the largest black population.  In 1860, Charlestown’s African American population was tallied at 198 persons, an increase from the 1850 count of 154 persons. Further, Thornbrough notes that these figures represent 6 percent of the total population of the city. It is interesting to note that in 1860 New Albany ranked first both in black population and in percentage of total population with 627 African American residents making up 7.5 percent of the town. Indianapolis, which had the 2nd largest black population (498 persons), was only 2.6 percent black (Thornbrough 141). It is also worth noting that in a decade where the black population of Clark County as a whole decreased, the population of the town of Charleston increased. By 1870, the population of Charleston more than doubled to a count of 410. 

In addition to labor, various censuses also inventory an interesting range of skilled trades among the black residents of Charlestown that included blacksmith, miller, plasterer, carpenter, cabinet maker, shoemaker, brick molder, tailor, teamster, river pilot, boatman, wagon maker, miniature painter and weaver. Kentucky and Indiana are the primary places of birth. 

Despite it’s significant numbers, Charlestown’s African American residents were mostly restricted to a neighborhood with the unfortunate name of Nigger Hill, a name still in common use to this day. The neighborhood is located on the southwest edge of Charlestown. Black students attended a segregated school. The Charlestown Public Library has a catalog with a roster of students in the “colored department” as well as a photograph of students outside the Carver Hill School, a one-room school house.

Bethel AME Church began before 1857 as the Charlestown Meeting House. Reverend W.A. Mitchem was one of the first ministers to preach. Tradition has it that preachers also served as school teachers. The church built a second structure in 1857. County histories indicate that the cemetery in Charlestown has “subdivisions” for "strangers, suicides and colored people.” The John Brown Post 585 of the GAR, an African American chapter, was organized in 1890. Although short-lived, Charlestown even had a newspaper with an African American perspective. Begun in May 1859, William Greenlee’s effort ceased publication shortly after it began (Kramer 156).

Bibliography

Abby, Margaret. “Taylor High: Their School is Gone but Not Their Spirit.” Jeffersonville Evening News, January 24, 2002.

“Back in the Early Days.” Jeffersonville Daily Evening News, August 27, 1889, p2. 

Baird, Lewis C. Baird’s History of Clark County, Indiana. Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen, 1909. 

“Bethel A.M.E. Church, Charlestown, Indiana, 1857-1964, Church History”. [1964?] Photocopy. (Collection of Charlestown-Clark County Public Library.)

“Bethel A.M.E. Church, Charlestown, Indiana. 125th Church Anniversary, March 28, 1982”. [1982?] Photocopy. (Collection of Charlestown-Clark County Public Library.) 

Biographical and historical souvenir for the counties of Clark, Crawford, Harrison, Floyd, Jefferson, Jennings, Scott, and Washington, Indiana. Chicago: Chicago Printing Co., 1889.

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Brown, Maxine. “The Trail: Chronicling Indiana’s African American History and Heritage.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Fall 2011: 34-39. 

Burke, Jeanne M. “We Need to Save Clark’s History.” [Clark Co, In] News and Tribune, September 30, 2009. Accessed October 25, 2014. 

Burke, Jeanne M. “Priceless County History Destroyed.” [Clark Co., IN] News and Tribune, November 9, 2007. Accessed October 25, 2014. 

Burke, Jeanne M., Clark County Historian. Telephone interviews and email with Georgia Cravey, October, 2014. 

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Nichols, Jim. “Taylor-Made: Alumni Remember Their All-Black School with Pride.” Jeffersonville Evening News [undated, from Jeffersonville Public Library clipping files]. 

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“Port Fulton Annexed by Unanimous Vote of Council Last Night.” Jeffersonville Evening News, March 6, 1925. (Collection of Jeffersonville Public Library). 

“Port Fulton Comes in to Corporate Limits by Ordinance Tonight.” Jeffersonville Evening News, March 5, 1925. (Collection of Jeffersonville Public Library).

“Press Excursion: What the Editors Say about Jeffersonville.” Jeffersonville Evening News, June 20, 1873, p3. 

Reiter, Jon. “Jeff Native Working on Book Highlighting African-American Influence on City’s History.” Jeffersonville Evening News, January 24, 2002.

Sarles, Jane. Clarksville, Indiana. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2001. 

Schneider. Grace. “Old Taylor School is Lesson in Both Love, Intolerance.” Louisville Courier Journal, October 27, 1993. 

“Serious Charges: the West End and Egypt All Agog.” Jeffersonville Daily Evening News, September 13, 1886, p 4. 

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Trustees. First Annual Catalogue of the Graded School and Normal Institute of Charlestown, Clark County, Indiana, for the Scholastic Years 1883-4. Collection of Charlestown-Clark County Public Library).

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By Georgia Cravey, October 21, 2014