Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fort Wayne’s early African-American settlers blazed a trial that burns bright today.

by Tom Castaldi

On May 16, 1849, three black businessmen, Willis W. Elliot, Henry H. Canada and George W. Fisher, purchased at the public land auction a lot on the south side of Jefferson Street, between Francis and Hanna streets.  In order to ensure that the property was removed from the tax rolls so that the congregation could build a church there, the three men sold the land to Reverend George Nelson Black, a thirty-four-year-old blacksmith who served as minister to the congregation, and then had the deed registered in the name of the “Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Fort Wayne, Indiana.”
In these difficult years for black settlers, however, no church was built, although building materials were purchased. The lot was at last sold by the congregation in 1853 and it was not until after the Civil War, in 1871, that the A.M.E. church of Fort Wayne would be able to establish a house of worship.

African-Americans had been a part of the development of Fort Wayne since the earliest times.  There were black trappers in the wilderness and African-Americans are known to have lived among the Indians.  The first black man known by name to have lived in Fort Wayne was Philip Framan, who worked for an army contractor in 1797, perhaps as a baker. There were blacks in the U.S. Army garrisons of Fort Wayne, too.  Private David Gillen and Private Philip Faudree served during the War of 1812, and Faudree remained in the area as a wagonsmith in the years after he left the service.

It was not until the 1840s, however, that a small black community became evident in pioneer Fort Wayne.  Fort Wayne’s little community had grown sufficiently by 1845 that the Ohio and Western Conference of the A.M.E. put the town on its circuit, making it possible for visiting preachers to attend to the spiritual needs of African-Americans at the Three Rivers. It was difficult for these settlers to make their home in Indiana for in this era state law required African-Americans to pay the county of their residence a bond of $500 to ensure their good behavior and that they would not become a burden to the Township “Overseer of the Poor.”

Although in general the Methodist Church was the most receptive congregation to African-Americans in their worship, in this segregationist age it was the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church that offered the only real assistance.

During the 1850s, the congregation was beset by a host of laws and attitudes that made it extremely difficult to expand its numbers and attract the necessary aid to create a proper church.  Anti-abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates loudly proclaimed their views form the pulpit of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to the pages of the Fort Wayne Sentinel, and those who voiced their anti-slavery sentiments in the local abolitionist newspaper, The Standard, were openly vilified.  The Underground Railroad was active through the Fort Wayne area, but little that is definite is known about it since it was an illegal activity.  The greatest impediment to the growth of a black congregation and its ability to create a church was the revised Indiana Constitution of 1851, which forbade blacks from entering the state and fined anyone who would hire black immigrants.  Even more restrictive legislation followed throughout the 1850s, denying blacks access to the public schools, theaters and the law courts.

Not until after the Civil War and the end of such repressive laws did the black community in Fort Wayne again begin to grow.

This article originally appeared in Fort Wayne Magazine, "Along the Heritage Trail", January/February 2004, No. 3, page 57. Our thanks for allowing us to republish this article on the History Center's Blog.

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