Tour A 5. 4th of July Violence and John Tucker

1887 Sandborn overlaid on current street scpae. Note the blocks of demolished homes.  Frame structures yellow, and brick structures in pink. Image Source: Indianapols Sandborn Collection, IUPUI Digital Collections and Google Earth.

1887 Sandborn Map overlaid on current streetscape. Note the blocks of demolished homes. Frame structures yellow, and brick structures in pink. Image Source: Indianapolis Sandborn Map Collection, IUPUI Digital Collections and Google Earth.

John Tucker’s audacity to attend an 1845 Independence Day Celebration in Indianapolis’ Military Park in provoked his murder at the hands of a white mob.[1] To highlight the ways in which social protest challenged and subverted racist and “erroneous assumptions and representations,” is not to deny the violent racial climate of Antebellum America and the extent to which these challenges inflamed antebellum racial tensions.[2] While publishing literary journals and hosting abolition speakers were critical, it is important to also understand that the stakes for a misstep in the negotiation of racial boundaries in Northern communities too often led to death and destruction.[3]

Mob violence.  Image Source: William Still's The Underground Railroad

Mob violence. Image Source: William Still’s The Underground Railroad


John Tucker, a pioneer of the Indianapolis Black community, according to newspaper accounts was attending a community celebration of Independence Day at Military Park when a group of “white ruffians” attacked him with cries of “kill the damn nigger.” Two white men were arrested, and one them convicted of manslaughter, though the actual murder was never prosecuted. Some whites were outraged by the arrest of two of the rioters, though more than a hundred witnessed the attack.[4]

Juneteenth celebration in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900 (Austin History Center)

Juneteenth celebration in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900. Image Source: Austin History Center

This case was notable, not for the violence, but as some of the perpetrators were brought to justice.  Many other instances of White racial violence not only went unpunished, but often even documented in the historical record. Accounts of violence appear in White newspapers throughout the state, and countless more were never recorded with the victim’s suffering lost to history. Newspaper accounts of White violence were generally met with tacit support or ambivalence.  Though the papers generally discouraged mob action, they often blamed African Americans for the necessity of the action. For example, in 1860 when a mob destroyed two African American homes, believed to be involved in prostitution, the Indianapolis Sentinel  commented “if ever mob law was justifiable, it was in this instance.”[5] Social support structures and white non-rioters were critical in diffusing volatile situation. In the 1836 James Overall attack, Calvin Fletcher and law enforcement officials were able to prevent the contagion of violence.[6] Indianapolis leaders attempted to buy up the property of White rioters to get them to leave town in the 1838 attack of Jonathan King.[7] At the 1846 Abolitionist meeting on the lawn of the state capitol, a young Rev. Henry Ward Beecher quelled riots by his presence standing beside the Black and White speakers.[8]

After the 1845 Tucker attack, some Indianapolis Blacks began to carry clubs to protect themselves. The Sentinel newspaper reassurance that “they were as safe from harm, and as much under the protection of the laws as any other member of the community,” certainly offered little reassurance as tensions remained high more than a month later.[9]

Violence led to the segregation of holidays. Celebrations of freedom, such as the 4th of July, came to be seen as “White” as freedom itself.  Across the country, Northern Blacks were beaten for claiming a right to celebrate Independence. Blacks developed their own “race patriotism,” such as the celebration of freedom in Haiti or later Emancipation.[10]

Segregation was seen as a strategy to avoid violence in the North, but growing White settlement in Indiana set even rural Black settlements on a crash course with the mob. Towns across the state, including Lafayette, Evansville, and New Albany saw a number of riots in the antebellum period.[11] The media and legal language of violence is central to understanding racial rioting.[12] Violence and freedom shared a clear connection in nineteenth-century America.[13] The system of slavery in the South was predicated on fear and violence. During Southern riots, more than 90 percent of Black deaths were caused by the mobs themselves. These mob actions were generally supported by the local public, thereby leading to limited discussion on the merits of slavery.  While hundreds died in mob violence in the North, there were critical region differences.  In the North, most deaths were caused by authorities and not by the mobs themselves.  Anti-slavery riots in support of fugitive slaves provoked reluctant, inconsistent riot suppression by authorities.  The milder, more controlled riots generally encouraged sympathy for the anti-slavery movement, and inconsistent and unreliable law enforcement. Social divisions that infiltrated politics and political rioting linked violence to both slavery and the anti-slavery movements.[14]

Shelter at Military Park, today.

Shelter at Military Park, today.

5. John Tucker and the Site of Fourth of July Violence

Forge History

Forge History

Take part in a Juneteenth Celebration.

[1] Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900: a Study of a Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 129-130.

[2] Julius Bailey, Race Patriotism: Protest and Print Culture in the AME Church (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012), xiv.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900, 130.

[5] Indianapolis Sentinel, March 13, 1860.

[6] For a summary of evidence see, Paff, “James Overall Marker Application IHB.”

[7] Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900, 131.

[8]T. A. Hendrickson, “Indianapolis and Slavery: ‘A Moral Refrigerator’,” Black History News & Notes (2009): 2–7; Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900,  221–224. For the evolution of the beliefs of Beecher, see Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Random House Digital, Inc., 2007).

[9] Indianapolis State Sentinel, August 28, 1845.

[10] Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Meaning and Memory in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006); Bailey, Race Patriotism.

[11]  Pamela Peters, “Journey to the Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana”  Black History News and Notes (2007.): 1–3;  Randy Mills, “‘They Defended Themselves Nobly’: A Story of African American Empowerment in Evansville, Indiana 1857,”  Black History News and Notes (2009): 5–7.

[12] For historical and legal definitions of violence in ante-bellum America, see Richard B. Kielbowicz, “The Law and Mob Law in Attacks on Antislavery Newspapers, 1833-1860” Law and History Review Vol. 24, No. 3 (Fall, 2006), pp. 559-600. For Indianapolis and Indiana examples, see  Jeannie Regan-Dinius, “‘With Bodily Force and Violence:’ The Escape of Peter,” Black History News and Notes (2008.): 5–7; John Gunter, “Negative Racial Attitudes Towards African Americans in Indiana During the Civil War,” Black History News and Notes (2008): 3–8.

[13] Leonard L. Richards, Gentlemen of Property and Standing: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (Oxford University Press, 1971); James Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty : Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1996); Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of the Dream (University of Chicago Press, 1986); Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Charles Hubbard and Georgia Cravey, “The Trials of William Tell: An African American Pursues Freedom on the Indiana Frontier,” Traces 25:1 (Winter 2013): 40–45.; Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004); Nikki Marie Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868 (Ohio University Press, 2005).

[14] These regional distinctions can be found in David Grimsted, American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2003). Regional studies suggest that mob action also responded to local conditions, as well as these larger regional variations, see Brian Butler, An Undergrowth of Folly: Public Order, Race Anxiety, and the 1903 Evansville, Indiana Riot, Studies in African American History and Culture (New York: Garland Pub, 2000); Randy K. Mills, “‘They Defended Themselves Nobly’: A Story of African American Empowerment in Evansville, Indiana 1857,” Black History News and Notes (August 2005): 2–5; Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom; Griffler, Front Line of Freedom.