Like other pioneers, they came to Indiana in search of land and liberty and, for the most part, found both. Beginning in the 1820s and continuing until the eve of the Civil War, free African-Americans migrated in family groups to Indiana and established farming societies that valued hard work, education and faith.
More than a dozen such communities were formed before 1860. Greenville Settlement, founded in 1822 in Randolph County, is believed to have been the first. Others developed in Grant, Rush, Gibson and Vigo counties.
One of the most prominent was Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County. Although most of its residents shared the Roberts surname, the Waldens, Winburns, Gilliams and others came, too.
Their journey began in two slave states, North Carolina and Virginia, where the families lived as free people of color before the Revolutionary War. Most were a mix of African, Native American and English descent, and “it appears that the African element came from the earliest generation of slavery,” according to historian Stephen A. Vincent.
By the early 19th century, their freedom was uncertain. Three slave revolts had occurred within 100 miles of their homes, including the famous Nat Turner Rebellion that resulted in the deaths of 60 white people. In response, Southern states rushed to place restrictions on the rights of free blacks. Some decided to leave the South for the Midwest, where slavery had been prohibited since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
The founders of Roberts Settlement spent time in western Ohio and Rush County before settling permanently near modern-day Arcadia. In July 1835, Hansel Roberts, Elijah Roberts and Micajah Walden purchased the first homesteads. Historians believe they intentionally located near neighborly Quakers and Wesleyans, the abolitionist branch of the Methodist church.
By 1870, the community consisted of 300 people on 2,000 acres of productive farmland that included a school and a church. “They strongly valued both religion and education,” Vincent said.
Even in free Indiana, life was difficult. Black pioneers faced the typical hardships of wilderness as well as prejudice and hostility from white citizens.
In 1841, a free black in Hamilton County was abducted and sold into slavery, much like the case of Solomon Northup depicted in the recent Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave.” In 1851, Indiana’s newly drafted constitution prohibited black immigration, language that was not formally removed until 1881.
Theirs is a story of perseverance, said Bryan Glover of Noblesville, descendant of Elijah Roberts, who notes that succeeding generations achieved remarkable success as educators, doctors and ministers.
As job opportunities expanded in the early 1900s and urban life beckoned, family members dispersed. Their sense of purpose, however, remained.
Vincent writes, “In essence they were able to leverage the advantages of their Roberts Settlement upbringings as they moved to towns and cities, much as their parents and grandparents had leveraged theirs in the migration from North Carolina to the
Today, only the church and pioneer cemetery remain, preserved through private donations from descendants. A family reunion has been conducted there annually since 1925 on the Fourth of July, and plans are in the works to more widely share the settlement’s story and artifacts with students of Indiana and African-American history.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.