The Carter House: A valuable Harrison County asset
A 1997 New York Times article titled ‘Historians Give National Parks Low Marks,’ reported the observations of members of the Organization of American Historians with regard to the state of national parks and battlefields. These mostly academic historians concluded that the exhibits, films and lectures that are presented at these sites are one-sided and disturbingly outdated.
The article further stated that the study of history has changed dramatically in recent decades with the rise of what has been called ‘the new social history,’ a history that includes the study of the experiences of previously neglected groups: blacks, women, immigrants, workers and others.
The Leonard Carter house in Corydon represents an opportunity for our community to embrace this ‘new social history.’ The Carter house is an artifact that can illuminate our community’s commitment to its own historical integrity. After all, historical records prove that African Americans have been residents of Indiana since its founding. The 1810 census of Indiana Territory reveals that there were 630 people of African descent. Harrison County, the fourth-oldest county in the state, had a significant African American population. In fact, in 1814 the Mitchum enclave entered Harrison County and added about 100 African Americans to the count.
Leonard Carter, although born in Floyds Knobs, apparently settled in Harrison County in 1864 after he was wounded in a Civil War battle at Petersburg, Va. Carter married Easter Perry in 1866, and they acquired the property on the present Floyd Street in 1891. Leonard Carter was born in 1845 and died in 1905. His death certificate lists his parents as unknown. He is an example of someone who lived during the darkest chapter of this nation’s history. He and others who were born as African Americans lived at a time when real freedom was the privilege of whites only, a time when individuals risked their lives just to live peaceably, and a time when an underground movement was set in motion by African Americans and fair-minded whites to help those enslaved to escape cruel abuse.
Of all the states in the Midwest, Indiana was by far the most conservative when it came to state policies related to blacks prior to the Civil War. The African American population in Indiana increased at a steady rate until 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act and the adoption of the ‘Black Laws,’ in 1851 as part of Indiana’s second Constitution, banned all immigrating blacks from entering or settling in the state and placed penalties on anyone who induced blacks to immigrate to Indiana or hired them for work. The result of these measures created a climate of fear and set the stage for Indiana’s anti-black attitudes.
African Americans were not given the opportunity to fight for their state in the Civil War until the war was well into its third year. Yet despite this, many, including Leonard Carter, were willing join the war effort.
In his 1994 doctoral dissertation, ‘The Twenty-Eighth United States Colored Troops,’ William Forsthen states, ‘All (colored troops) were aware that each battle was a testing, a means of destroying the degrading myths of the past and in the process building a new paradigm for the future. On the battlefield the chance was available, at last, to prove their worth as men and as citizens … the men knew that in one gallant rush they could not only win the war but win a new definition of themselves as well.’
The history of African Americans in Indiana needs interpretation. The Carter house will help us effectively interpret that history. In 1820, when Corydon was capital of Indiana, a bold ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously freed Polly Strong from enslavement. Yet, 30 years later, there were attempts by many in the state to drive out African Americans, many of whom were native born. And, 100 years after that landmark Supreme Court decision, or about 1920, the Ku Klux Klan was so successful in Indiana that many people still erroneously think that Indiana rather than Tennessee was its birthplace. Although there are many people in our region who clearly see the value of saving an important piece of our history, the Leonard Carter house, apparently there are some who do not.
Thankfully, the 1891 Corydon Colored School was saved and is now a valuable historic landmark that serves a multiplicity of purposes. The board of directors of the House of New Beginnings unanimously voted to gift the Carter House to the Brown School. Please join with us in saving the Carter House from demolition so that just as the Brown School has demonstrated, we can demonstrate its value to our community, region and state as a rehabilitated historic site. Telephone 738-3376 and be counted.
Maxine F. Brown is a Corydon native who restored the Leora Brown School in Corydon.