A slave’s pride and dignity
A ‘Lunch and Learn’ presentation was held at the Leora Brown School on Saturday regarding indentured servitude in Indiana and the case of Mary Bateman Clark v. General Washington Johnston. The case, which was heard here in Corydon in 1821, ruled against Clark’s involuntary indentured servitude.
Maxine Brown, of the Leora Brown School, introduced Richard Day, speaker at the luncheon, a historian and a scholar of slavery in Indiana.
Day gave the audience background on what a young Indiana was like as a state. He said the earliest recorded instances of slavery date back to the 1730s and continued through the 1780s. The Ordinance of 1787, which promoted settlements within the Northwest Territory, also included an article which outlawed ‘new’ slavery and involuntary servitude in lands north of the Ohio River. Day said this spawned a litany of lawsuits in the 1790s by descendants of original slaves who contested being willed or sold as slaves but that didn’t mean there wasn’t slavery happening still.
‘Slavery was of unsure legal status,’ Day said.
Many attempts to circumvent the laws were successful, including legislation that said an owner could bring slaves to Indiana and free them, but only after signing into indentured servitude.
Indentured servitude was, at the time, an effective way of ensuring training in areas that required it, and was not based on race. However, this new law said if a newly freed slave would not sign away freedom with indentured servitude, the owners had 60 days to take them back to a slave-owning state.
A few years after the War of 1812, when the population of Indiana had increased significantly, one lawyer from Vermont, named Amory Kinney, tried his luck with enforcing the anti-slavery law. He did so by enacting a writ of habeas corpus, requiring slave owners to produce their slaves, if slaves were legally trying to obtain their freedom. Kinney took on the case of Polly Strong, and it was appealed all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court and, eventually, found in favor of Strong.
‘It pretty much put the end to slavery,’ Day said, ‘but not indentured servitude.’
Enter Mary Bateman Clark, a slave in Kentucky who was brought to Indiana by Benjamin I. Harrison. They arrived in January 1815 and Harrison indentured Clark for 30 years. In 1816, Harrison freed Clark, only to turn her over to General (first name, not a title) Washington Johnston the same day. He indentured her for 20 years. It wasn’t until April 13, 1821, that Kinney took Clark’s case to the Knox County Circuit Court and filed papers on her behalf, stating she was being held as a slave there. The circuit court ruled against freeing Clark and, in fact, ordered her to pay costs incurred by Johnston pleading his case.
Kinney didn’t stop there, though. He appealed the decision to the Indiana Supreme Court, where eventually, nearly seven months later, the court ruled in Mary’s favor and freed her from indentured servitude.
Nick Haverstock, president of the Harrison-Crawford Bar Association, told the crowd, which moved from the Leora Brown School to the Old Capitol State Historic Site for the re-enactment, it was very clear the status of indentured servitude in Indiana.
‘Indentured servitude, for blacks, was no different than slavery, make no mistake,’ he said.
Eunice Brewer-Richardson, whose great-great-great-grandmother was Mary Bateman Clark, said Clark did many great things during her life, despite being basically a slave. She married, had 12 children and was very involved in the newly-formed African Methodist Episcopal Church.
‘We’re the product of what happened to her,’ Brewer-Richardson said, referring to her family, many of whom have been successful leaders of their communities.
She also hailed Kinney as Indiana’s unsung maverick and hero, for his willingness to do what was right.
Ethel Brewer-McCane, Brewer-Richardson’s sister, portrayed Mary Bateman Clark during a short re-enactment of her life after she obtained her freedom. Her main point as Clark was keeping ‘pride and dignity,’ two things essential to living right, no matter the skin color.
‘People’s ain’t supposed to own other peoples, selling them like so much cattle,’ Brewer-McCane said, in character.
Harrison County Superior Court Judge Roger Davis led a discussion after the re-enactment and pointed out how ‘striking’ the language of the court’s decision was to him. He said it became a contract issue, rather than an issue of morality or the inherent rightness of slavery. He said he thought the judges at the time would use that particular way of explaining the issue of Mary Clark, that she was being held to perform a service against her will, so they could impress upon the public the fact that one day they, too, could be forced to perform services against their will.
‘And they might not like (that),’ Davis said.