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July 24, 2021

African-American students during the late 1800s in Indiana

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The Vincennes Colored School was built in 1877 and later renamed the Dunbar School in honor of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In 1933, the school was closed; it was demolished in 1958. Courtesy Knox County Public Library.

During the 1860s and '70s, "colored schools" (the term used during that era) began to open in Indiana. State laws required Black students to be educated in schools separate from their white counterparts.

Eunice TrotterIn 1886, the ceremony for the first graduate of Vincennes Colored High School in southwestern Indiana sparked a national controversy when whites boycotted the event, according to an article in the spring issue of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, the magazine published by the Indiana Historical Society.

The article's author is acclaimed journalist, historian and researcher Eunice Trotter, who will be Nelson's guest to share insights about the ways Indiana cities handled the education of African American youth during the late 19th century.

During the 1870s, the first African-American student graduated from a predominantly white high school in Indianapolis. Mary Rann graduated from Indianapolis High School (later renamed Shortridge High School) in 1876. While much about her background and the milestone event is unknown, "it did open the way for others," Eunice writes.

The high school graduation 10 years later of Vincennes resident Grace Brewer was much more widely publicized because of the boycott of the citywide commencement by many white residents. They included pastors of local churches and business leaders as well as their teenage sons and daughters who were scheduled to graduate from Vincennes High School.

Although Grace Brewer became the first African American to graduate from a high school in Knox County, Eunice writes, "Many local Blacks [previously] had received individual education through schools tied to churches and went on to African-American colleges before Brewer's time."

This 1893 photo depicts the faculty of the Vincennes Colored School. The principal, W.H. Taylor, is believed to be standing in the upper left corner. Courtesy Knox County Public Library.In Vincennes and other Indiana cities, Black families had been complaining about the inadequate facilities and resources at the "colored schools." In her commencement address, Grace Brewer courageously described many of these challenges.

Also in 1886, a Black student in the Ohio River town of Vevay had completed her high school studies at a white school, but school board members "refused her the privilege of graduating with members of her class," according to Eunice's article. In Washington, Ind., objections from white students to including a Black classmate in their graduation exercises meant that two commencements were held.

Our guest Eunice Trotter has had a long and distinguished journalism career that has included serving as the first African-American editor at the Indianapolis Star (her jobs included assistant city editor and assistant business editor) and a stint as publisher of the Indianapolis Recorder. In 2017, Eunice was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

Although she grew up in Indianapolis, Eunice has deep ancestral roots in Vincennes. In 1821, her ancestor Mary Bateman Clark and an attorney sued her employer to gain release from a long-term "indentured servitude" contract that courts ruled was, in actuality, slavery. Eunice coordinated efforts to get a historic marker at the Knox County Courthouse in recognition of Mary Bateman Clark's precedent-setting case. In 2010, she discussed the landmark case on a Hoosier History Live show about slave trials during the 1820s in Indiana.



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