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Shelby County

African American rural settlements documented: 0

Though there are no known settlements in Shelby County, there are strong possibilities in need of further research.

In Black History: Shelby County, Paula Karmire mentions some possible settlements. She describes a 6 ½ acre parcel “just south of the [Shelbyville] city limits” settled by five Grissom brothers and a sister known as the Grissom neighborhood or Grissom Lane (p17). Additionally she discusses two “primary areas of settlement”: Harrison Street area to the south of the Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis Railroad and an area along Pike and Venter Streets and Washington Avenue west of Miller Street known as Maplewood (p 26). These two areas are probably within the town of Shelbyville and thus outside the scope of this project. Another area of settlement known as Hoganville was located across Blue River at the north edge of Shelbyville (p 26). Finally Karmire notes “a small community of people” at Norristown by 1900 which falls outside the time frame of this project (p 7).

The 19th century African American population of Shelby County was small, but like neighboring Johnson County, shows a substantial increase between 1860 and 1870.

In 1830 the census shows a total of eight free people of color residing in the county apparently in association with white families. The history of the Fox household is typical of one of the major themes of migration to Indiana. Michael Fox leaves the Quaker stronghold of Randolph County, North Carolina, with his son, Jacob, and three black children: Silas, Isaac and Dilla/Dilly Coleman/Colman. In 1820 the Fox household is enumerated in Wayne County, Indiana, and by 1821 Fox and his household have settled in “Little Marion” in Shelby County.

David Craig describes the Davis household, another white family that included African Americans. Records would indicate that these individuals had connections to a North Carolina farm owned by the Copple family. The Copples were German immigrants who lived previously in Maryland and Virginia. They left Rowan County, North Carolina, with “a few slaves” for Clark County, Indiana, where some of the freed slaves remained with the Copples while others apparently migrated to Shelby County.

The story of the first black landowners in Shelby County presents another interesting scenario of migration. In his 1821 will, Thomas Graffort, a white slave-owner in Bourbon County, Kentucky, provides his fifteen slaves eighty acre-tracts of land that have been entered in Shelby County and Rush County, Indiana. Three men, Hazard, Hedgeman and George Graffort share in the 480 acres purchased in Addison Township. They did not, however, have long tenure as the land seems to have been sold within a few years.

In 1840 the population increases to 20 persons. In 1850 the count declines by 1 person to 19. Of those 19 people, 9 are residing in the town of Shelbyville. The others are distributed in townships as follows: Moral, 7; Hendricks, 2;, Marion, 1.  In the 1860 census the count is 21 African Americans. As in the previous decade, the majority, 14 persons, live in Shelbyville, the county seat.

The Civil War years and the years leading up to the war saw conflict develop between Union and anti-Union/pro-slavery elements. Accusations were made concerning the formation of a chapter of Knights of the Golden Circle. On the other side of the coin, there is evidence of Underground Railroad activity in Shelby County. Ten black men enlisted in the 28th United States Colored Troops (USCT) from Shelby County: Thompson Burrs, Hiram and Madison Estes, Jordan McCrary, William B. McNeal, Daniel W. and John W. Morgan, Harvey Palmer, James Wadkins, and Isaiah Wells. Additional men were represented in other “colored” units.  The 28th USCT was an Indiana regiment.

Although it represented a small percentage of the total county population, the African American population increased significantly to 128 by 1870. The population was still concentrated in the town of Shelbyville and in Addison Township as a whole. In 1860 there were no African Americans counted in Addison Township out of the town of Shelbyville, but by 1870, 58 persons exclusive of the town are residing in the township. The 1870 population outside Addison Township is negligible with 10 of the 13 townships reporting no black population and two townships reporting only a single individual. A majority of the population shares Kentucky nativity with a good representation of North Carolinians, Virginians as well as some Indiana- born persons.

Paula Karmire’s excellent study of Shelby County’s black history provides a detailed picture of African American life in Shelby County after 1870. Settlement patterns begin to change. She notes a “small community of people living at Norristown” by 1900 with kinship ties to a community located near Hope, Indiana, in northeast Bartholomew County (p 7). Family names include Crawley, Bird, Starks, Simms, Hobbs, Johnson, McGee, Wells, Hayes, and Gaither.  Children from these families are evident in early school photographs collected at the Shelby County Library. Another small group of African Americans (Pattersons, Alderbrands and Couchmans) lived for a brief period following the Civil War in small frame houses in Washington Township a mile west of Flat Rock, south of State Road 252. The Couchmans can be traced to Marion County where Henry Couchman was a bell captain at an Indianapolis hotel.

In the decades following the Civil War, certain elements of Shelbyville demonstrated a domestic version of xenophobia. In December 1879, twenty-five immigrants from Goldsboro, North Carolina, arrived without adequate clothing or other means to survive winter in Indiana. Local reaction among white residents was largely negative and suspicions were aroused about other groups of North Carolinians making the migration north in search of opportunity.

In Shelbyville the black community began efforts to organize a school as early as 1868. School #2 at South Harrison and Howard Streets was built in 1870. In 1884 Nelson Grissom successfully sought to have his son Edmund admitted to the Shelbyville High School. Edmund Grissom graduated with the class of 1889. 

Efforts to organize a church began as early as 1857 and organized worship by a Baptist congregation began in February 1869. Rev. Richard Bassett headed the church in 1870. Rev Bassett had ties throughout Indiana including Parke and Howard Counties, and the towns of Rising Sun, Madison, New Albany, Indianapolis and Kokomo. Methodist organized more slowly. They obtained their own building in 1879 in the former headquarters of the Shelby County Abolitionist Society. 

It seems notable that Shelbyville’s fire department was integrated. Six black men were members of the 1891 hook and ladder squad and are included in a photograph of the crew. Karmire notes, however, that blacks were barred from many aspects of white society and as a consequence developed a rich community life with separate social and benevolent organizations including Masons and Odd Fellows. She sums up: “While there was generally mutual respect…racial lines were clear” (p23). In her book the level of detail is superior. 

There is an impressive collection of local history materials at the Shelby County Public Library.  There is a Local History Room, including many photographs.  There are a lot of possibilities for digitization projects.


Atlas of Shelby County. Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, 1979. (Reprint of 1880 edition).

Boetcker, Rev. William J.H. Picturesque Shelbyville. Reprint, Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, 1978.

Chadwick, Edward H. Chadwick’s History of Shelby County, Indiana. 1909. Reprint, Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, 1977.

Craig, David. “Black families Valuable Part of County’s History.” Shelbyville News, March 21, 2001. 

Ellis, Mike. “Blacks Leave Mark in Area.” Indianapolis News, June 14, 1989.

Flat Rock and Washington Township: Days-Gone-Bye [sic]. n.p.: n.p. 1987

Holmes, Maurice. Family History. [Local newsletter in files at Shelby County Museum] September 1991, p 45; December 1988, p 28.

Karmire, Paula. Black History: Shelby County, Indiana. Shelbyville, Indiana, P. Karmire, 2006.

Karmire, Paula. Shelby County, Indiana, Civil War Soldiers: A Biographical History. [n.p.:  n. p.], 2010.

McFadden, Marian. Biography of a Town: Shelbyville, Indiana, 1822-1962. Shelbyville, Indiana: Tippecanoe Press, 1968.

Murray, Lucille and Betty Randall. Black Heritage—Shelby County.  Typewritten manuscript Shelby County Public Library.

Oliver, Beverly. Shelbyville: A Pictorial History. St. Louis: G. Bradley Publishing, 1996.

Porter, Albert. A Short History of the Porter Family. 1989. Typewritten manuscript, Shelby County Public Library

Shelby County Historical Society [Shelby County, Indiana]. Shelby County, Indiana, History and Families. Paducah, Kentucky: Turner Publishing, 1992.

Shelby County Interim Report. [Indianapolis?] Historic Landmarks Foundation, 1992.

Shelbyville [Indiana] Young Men’s Pan-American Congress. The City of Shelbyville, Indiana, Illustrated. Chicago: Merritt & Harris, 1895.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. The Negro in Indiana before 1900: a Study of a Minority. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Aggregate Amount of Each Description of Persons within District of Indiana,” 1: 352. Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Office, 1841.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Population of Civil Divisions Less Than Counties; Table III—State of Indiana,” 1: 124. Ninth Census of the United States, 1870. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1872.

By Georgia Cravey, July 28, 2014