Tour A 2. Central Canal- Black Settlement of Indianapolis

Canal Walk, Today. Bridge shows where Toledo Street was historically.

Canal Walk, Today. Bridge shows where Toledo Street was historically.

Canal Bill Image Source:  Southern Indiana Trails

Canal Bill
Image Source: Southern Indiana Trails

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.

Black history reaches back to the earliest days of Indianapolis. The Central Canal can be seen as a fault line of violence and a color line. For the Overall family, and other congregants the story of the canal suggest both violence and opportunity.

Black settlement in Indiana was slow during the pioneer period, with Indiana being the most restrictive of the states in the former Northwest Territory. Though slavery was outlawed from the Territorial period, it was still practiced in the form of long-term indentures.  with free blacks mostly congregated in rural segregated settlements.[5] Approximately one percent, during the antebellum period in the southeast and in pockets of rural settlements.[6] The first Black settled in Indianapolis in 1821.  In 1830, the census reported 15 Black heads of households with 6 additional Blacks living in White headed households. The period from 1830-1850 was one of tremendous growth in the city. The racial tensions of the 1850s resulted in no Black population growth in the state overall and in Marion County, while the overall state population grew by more than seventy percent in the period between 1850 and 1860. By 1860, at the outset of the Civil War, there were 870 blacks recorded in the city.[7]

Central Canal Historical Marker Image Source: Indiana Historical Bureau, ihb.gov

In this early period when very few blacks moved to Indianapolis, church trustee James Overall was a pioneer. He speculated in land along the canal that would come to be called “Colored Town.”[8]  Following the movement of the state capitol, the Overall family moved to Indianapolis by 1830.  He purchased lots along the canal in 1832 and 1838.[9] Selling land to other African Americans was a way to circumvent some of the discrimination in property sales and to promote the development of a black community, as well as creating wealth.  In his estate, Overall heirs inherited equipment that would have been used for hauling and excavating, so it is quite possible that he or his sons were involved in the work on the canal. Overall also purchased land in the Hamilton County black settlement of Roberts, near Westfield, a Quaker community supportive of African American rights.[10]

canal

Canal Broadside
Image Source: Library of Congress, loc.gov

In Indianapolis, Black residents faced White hostility and racial violence.[11]  While African Americans did have the right to own property, there were strict legal restrictions in Indiana restricting settlement and mobility, as well as employment and civil rights. They were not allowed to vote or testify in court against Whites, with legal treatment varying greatly across the state depending on the racial views of the judge.[12]

2. Central Canal/ Origins of Indianapolis Station Community

Forge History

Forge History

Walk the Central Canal and White River State Park
Explore more Indianapolis African American history at the Indiana Historical Society on the Central Canal

[1] Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes (Lewis Publishing Company, 1910);Bruce Biglow, “The Cultural Geography of African Americans in Antebellum Indiana,” Black History News and Notes (2008): 4–7.

[2] David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis , “Indianapolis”; Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes (Lewis Publishing Company, 1910). See also, Andrew Robert Lee Cayton and Susan E. Gray, The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History (Indiana University Press, 2001).

[3]Dunn, Greater Indianapolis; Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

[4] Bodenhamer and Barrows, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

[5] Stephen A. Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900 (Indiana University Press, 1999); Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900: a Study of a Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Anna-Lisa Cox, “200 Years of Freedom: Charles Grier and the History of African American Settlement in Gibson Vounty, Indiana,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 25, no. 1 (2013): 35–39; Bruce Biglow, “The Cultural Geography of African Americans in Antebellum Indiana”; Xenia E. Cord, ”Black Rural Settlements in Indiana,” in Indiana’s African-American Heritage: Essays from Black History News & Notes (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1993).

[6] Bruce Biglow, “The Cultural Geography of African Americans in Antebellum Indiana.”

[7] Fifth United States Census as quoted in Earline Ray “Blacks in Ante-bellum Indianapolis, 1820-1860” in  Indiana’s African-American Heritage, 193.

[8] John H. B. Nowland, Early Reminiscences of Indianapolis: With Short Biographical Sketches of Its Early Citizens, and a Few of the Prominent Business Men of the Present Day (Sentinel Book and Job Printing House, 1870), 109.

[9] For details of the lots purchased, see Paff, “James Overall Marker Application,” Indiana Historical Bureau, Indianapolis, Indiana.

[10] John F. Haines, History of Hamilton County, Indiana: Her People, Industries and Institutions (B.F. Bowen & Co., 1915), 23; Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil, 193. For details of the lots purchased, see Paff, “James Overall Marker Application.”

[11] Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900; Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880; Indiana’s African-American Heritage.

[12] Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900; Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880.

school

Go to Stop 3: AME School

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