In few places is the opening of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture more eagerly anticipated than in the unincorporated Southern Indiana burg of Lyles Station.
Fifty residents and descendants of residents, about a quarter of the population of this 200-year-old African-American farming community, have chartered a bus and on Friday will head to Washington, D.C., to attend the grand opening. There they will check out, among other things, objects that for years were tucked away in their barns and attics but are now on display as part of the inaugural exhibitions of the decades-in-the-making, $540 million museum in the heart of the nation’s capital on the National Mall.
The items are typical 19th century stuff: a horse-drawn plow, a communion cup, a quilt, and so on. But the collection is significant because Lyles Station is significant. Of the roughly 100 black farming settlements that popped up in the Midwest in the 19th century, Lyles Station may be the last one still going.
“What excited me was the fact that it was still an active African-American farming community,” said Anna-Lisa Cox, a museum consultant and expert on 19th century race relations in the Midwest. “Of the over 70 (Midwestern African-American settlements), few if any still had active farmers working the land who had arrived there before the Civil War.”
Indiana figures prominently in the museum’s opening in another way. The second-largest private funding source is Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, which gave $20 million. Only Oprah Winfrey gave more: $21 million.
For the people of Lyles Station, the new museum is a rare opportunity to achieve a type of immortality. In Gibson County, a few miles from the city of Princeton, Lyles Station has long been a history-minded place. It has its own small museum, housed in the old schoolhouse. But the Smithsonian takes the story to a new level.
“We’re just thrilled about it,” said Stanley Madison, a fifth-generation Lyles Station farmer who donated his great-grandfather’s scythe to the museum’s collection. “This really puts us on the map, historically. We’re proud of what we’ve done and what we do, and why shouldn’t we be — we feed people.”
Cox said Lyles Station’s first settlers came in 1815 but that even she, a researcher at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, had never heard of the place until just a few years ago. How she learned of it was pure happenstance.
“I stumbled across a pamphlet Maxine Brown had created on the Indiana African American Heritage trail she was working on,” Cox recalled.
“Maxine Brown,” Madison said, is “how we got our foot in the door.”
Brown, of Corydon, for the past 30 years has been a tireless promoter of Indiana’s African-American history, which in her opinion has been neglected. In the 1980s, she bought and rehabilitated the Corydon Colored School, built in 1897, and converted it to a cultural center and event space. Most recently, she raised money for a historical marker commemorating James Overall, a black leader and Underground Railroad organizer in 1830s Indianapolis. The marker, which will be across the street from the Walker Theater in Downtown Indianapolis, will be dedicated Sept. 29, nine years after it was first proposed.
“African-Americans played a much larger role in Indiana than most people realize,” Brown said.
For Lyles Station, James Overall and other African-American people and things, celebration of their cultural and historical significance has been slow in coming. Negro History Week was first commemorated in 1926 but gained little traction until 50 years later, when it was expanded into Black History Month. Dozens of small museums devoted to African-Americans have popped up, but mostly just since the 1990s. The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, considered the top museum of its kind, was established earlier, in 1961, and has about 15,000 objects in its collection. But only now does black history get its own major, federally funded national museum, one whose collection contains 36,000 objects, including the items from Southern Indiana.
Lyles Station was never a booming place, but at one time it at least bustled. Even in its heyday, around 1900, it was mostly farm fields, but it also had a general store, a post office, a school, an African Methodist Episcopal Church and about 800 residents. A giant flood drenched its fields in 1913, and after that the population began to scatter.
Some people went on to do extraordinary things.
Alonzo Fields (1900-1994), whose father had conducted Lyles Station’s volunteer marching band, moved to Washington and became the first African-American chief butler at the White House. He planned and served at state dinners and parties for Presidents Hoover through Eisenhower. (“The spiked punch always went over big,” Fields noted in his autobiography.)
Matthias Nolcox (1886-1985), whose forebear Joseph Nolcox was one of Lyles Station’s founders, studied education at Harvard and later moved to segregated Indianapolis, where in 1927 he became the first principal at the new black high school Crispus Attucks. (In a 2011 interview with IndyStar, Nora Taylor Hart, the last living member of Attucks’ first class, recalled Nolcox as “very strict.” ”There was no playing around. ‘Nolly does not forget’ was his motto.”)
Other people stayed in Lyles Station and lived the same rural life their families had lived for generations. When he was in the Air Force in the 1950s, Norman Greer found himself answering the question, “Where you from?”
“Lyles Station, Indiana,” he would say, and nobody had ever heard of it. Greer shrugged and went about his business, which today is back in Lyles Station, where he farms the land his forebears farmed before the Civil War. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 300 acres. He is 79.
Last spring, representatives from the Smithsonian came to his farm and held a ceremony at which they dug a few spadefuls of Greer’s soil and carted it away with them. “I’d say it was maybe two or three gallons’ worth,” Greer said. “That was kind of a shock to me, that they’d want the dirt, but it’s an honor.”
Earlier this month, he traveled to D.C. for a sneak preview of the new museum. There, in “The Power of Place” exhibit, in a glass jar a foot or so tall, was his dirt.
Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/2crwy56
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The Indianapolis Star.