Blacks sought equality in Fort Wayne

By Eunice Trotter of The News-Sentinel

Old military files, government records, and settlers' letters and diaries show that blacks may have first arrived in Fort Wayne as slaves with French and British settlers.

The French brought them to Fort Wayne to build forts and raise crops. Some of the slaves' ancestors may have been kings, queens and tribal leaders in Africa.

The kidnapped Africans were forced onto ships that were so crowded they could only lie on their backs or sit in a small space. Many died in the ships because of the bad conditions. Many committed suicide rather than be enslaved. Some mothers threw their babies into the Atlantic Ocean rather than see them become slaves.

Once in Fort Wayne and other places in America, slaves could be sold whenever the owner wanted to sell them. Sometimes their families were torn apart when the master sold part of the family. Sometimes slaves ran away to escape being sold or to get away from a cruel master.

Many slaves fought back. One of the most famous is Nat Turner. Turner led the most widely known slave rebellion in history in 1831 at Southampton County, Va. About 60 whites were killed. Turner was captured in Virginia and hanged.

Blacks predate fort

Antoine Lasselle, a Frenchman, lived in Fort Wayne with a number of black slaves some 23 years before pioneer and military leader Gen. Anthony Wayne built a fort here in 1794. Fort Wayne and some of its streets and buildings are named after Wayne.

Native Americans raided British and French settlements, and they often took black people as prisoners. Many blacks then became slaves to Native Americans, but some married Native Americans, and they had children together. Many blacks now have Native American heritage.

While some blacks who moved here were born free or had paid money for their freedom, other blacks who settled in Fort Wayne came here to escape slave states in the South. Indiana was not a slave state, yet Indiana allowed people who owned slaves to keep them in slavery here.

Underground railroad

Fort Wayne was a crossroads for runaway slaves who fled to freedom on what became known as the underground railroad.

The underground railroad was not an actual railroad of tracks and trains. It was a pathway through forests, across rivers and fields, down dirt roads, to homes of sympathetic men and women – black and white – who thought slavery was wrong.

Runaway slaves were often guided by people who slaves could trust. They were called underground railroad conductors.

One of the best known conductors was Harriet Tubman, a black woman born a slave in Maryland in 1820 who ran away from slavery after being cruelly abused and almost killed by her owner. She liberated more than 300 slaves and became legendary.

Slavery's foes

Runaways were also helped by abolitionists. If there was a leader of Fort Wayne's underground railroad, it was most likely the Rev. Alexander T. Rankin, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church and a founder of the Indiana Anti-Slavery Society.

With help from abolitionists, escaped slaves were able to elude slave hunters who were paid to catch slaves. Historians believe more than 2,500 slaves escaped each year.

Some blacks in Indiana were encouraged to leave by being offered free transportation to Liberia in West Africa, plus $50 and 100 acres there. Forty-seven black families in Fort Wayne accepted the offer. Many blacks continued to move to Fort Wayne.

Routes to freedom

One of the main routes of the underground railroad that went through Fort Wayne was the towpath of the Wabash and Erie Canal. It was called the Wabash Line.

The other came north from Richmond through Winchester and Bluffton to Fort Wayne and then forked: one route continuing north through Auburn and the other turning east toward Toledo, Ohio, Detroit and Canada.

In Fort Wayne, Frederick Nirdlinger's house in the 200 block of West Main Street and other Fort Wayne houses became stations on the underground railroad, historians say. Fort Wayne was the halfway point between slave states in the South and freedom in Canada.

It was illegal to help slaves escape, and people who did so could be fined up to $1,000. But some people helped slaves escape anyway.

Barbara Stalling-Muniz, a former Fort Wayne resident and founder of the Black American Roots Society, has documents that show Indiana 27 was an underground railroad route. Today, people still drive that route to go to Michigan.

Establishing roots

By the early 1800s, free blacks in Fort Wayne included David Gillen, a soldier who became a wheel maker, and Phillip Framan, the fort's baker.

Like everyone else who settled here, they had to work hard to survive. In 1820, when teacher Isaac McCoy opened the fort's missionary school, it had only one black student.

State laws made it difficult for blacks to come here. In 1831, the government passed a law that said blacks had to pay $500 to enter Indiana. Lawmakers said the fee would ensure that blacks would behave and work hard. That was a lot of money then, considering that most workers made just $1 a day.

But blacks came to Indiana anyway. Nearly 300 paid the fees, settled in Fort Wayne, and worked as blacksmiths, sharecroppers and laborers. A few prosperous black pioneers set up homes in the southwest part of town and became noted landholders and small-business owners, says historian Michael Hawfield, who wrote "Here's Fort Wayne Past and Present."

Fighting discrimination

In the mid-1840s, the Rev. Daniel W. Burroughs, a Fort Wayne Baptist preacher and publisher of a newspaper, The Standard, proved to be a friend of blacks. He was active in the underground railroad. Newspaper clips show that Burroughs was often threatened, taunted and attacked for being against slavery.

By the 1850s, about 80 free blacks lived in Fort Wayne, though Indiana barred the immigration of others. More than 100 lived in Allen County, which had a population of 16,919. It is not known how many runaway slaves were here at the time, since none would ever consider allowing themselves to be counted.

By the 1860s, free black people continued to live in fear. They barricaded their doors at night, for fear a kidnapper would attempt to take them into slavery in the South. It was during this time, in 1863, that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom for slaves.

Though blacks were no longer slaves, they continued to be treated badly throughout the late 1800s. Many couldn't read and were not allowed in public schools. Many were poor. Most who lived in Southern states began to move north to Fort Wayne and other cities.

In the 1900s, blacks faced another enemy – the Ku Klux Klan. This group of people hated blacks, Catholics and Jews and did everything they could to force them to move away.

This was still a time of segregation. Schools were segregated and blacks could not eat at restaurants, stay in hotel rooms or ride in the front of buses in Fort Wayne. But blacks continued to move here through the '40s, '50s and '60s.

The civil rights era in the 1960s led to many changes that resulted in better treatment of blacks.

Now, black people are in many respected positions, but some discrimination remains. People continue to fight for civil rights.
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