Building upon beliefs, behaviors
Maxine Brown, Guest Writer
The early character of our community was shaped by Article VIII of Indiana’s first Constitution. The Constitution, adopted June 29, 1816, amplified the new state’s commitment to racial equality.
Article VIII states: “But as for holding any part of the human creation in slavery or involuntary servitude, can only originate in usurpation and tyranny, no alteration of this constitution shall ever take place so as to introduce slavery or involuntary servitude in this State, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
At a time when slavery was strongly entrenched in our country and in our close neighbor to the south, Kentucky, Indiana took a bold humanitarian stand against this “evil institution.” The language in the new Constitution replicated language that prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, a document that governed Indiana prior to statehood. However, despite these prohibitions, slavery and involuntary servitude were still illegally practiced in our state and community from its beginning. Early Harrison County tax records are proof that taxes were paid on slaves.
It would appear as though the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was within the reach of black American Hoosiers when, two years prior to Indiana statehood, an unusual court case was settled at Corydon. This case also helped to shape our community’s character when an ex-slave named Elizabeth from Bullitt County, Ky., sued a white man for assault and battery, false imprisonment and trespass. The jury, composed of 12 white men, decided in Elizabeth’s favor. Then in 1820-21, the character of our community continued to be shaped by two landmark Indiana Supreme Court decisions. The 1820 case freed Polly Strong, a young woman held by Hyacinth Lasselle as a slave. Then in 1821, Mary Bateman Clark was freed from involuntary servitude to Gen. Washington Johnston, a prominent Indiana politician. Both cases upheld Indiana’s Constitution. An historic marker marking these rulings stands prominently in the courtyard of the Old State Capitol.
Corydon and Harrison County history is a lesson in racial diversity. An extraordinary event that represented a significant increase in Corydon and Harrison County’s population occurred in 1814 when an elderly white anti-slavery couple, Paul and Susannah Mitchem, led a group of about 100 slaves to our area expressly to be emancipated. Those who accompanied the Mitchems were freed from enslavement. Original deeds of emancipation are located in Harrison County’s oldest deed record books.
My own ancestry in Harrison County dates to this unusual occurrence. My third great-grandmother, Milly, and her five children, were emancipated at this time as recorded in Deed Book A, Harrison County’s oldest deed record book. A 1918 newspaper article that chronicled this in-migration, states that the old couple lived among the ex-slaves to protect them. Most of the ex-slaves took the family name, Mitchem, because of their love for the couple. These new settlers created their own means of support; some were farmers, laborers, business owners, etc. One of them, Littleton Mitchem, became a physician and practiced medicine with black and white patients until he died in 1902 at the age of 106.
A second wave of black Americans located in our community after the Civil War when a number of families left Meade County, Ky., to settle here. Some of the family names of those who came were Garner, Brown, Scott, Parker, Rochester and Alexander. Two of my great-grandparents, Alford and Emaline Wimp Brown, were among these new settlers.
There were so many black families living here that in 1891 a separate school, the Corydon Colored School, was built. At its peak, as many as 80 students attended the school.
In 1894, Professor William Fouse was hired to teach as Corydon’s first black American teacher. He was a distinguished graduate of an Ohio college where his family had located after the Civil War, A number of other teachers followed Professor Fouse, who left our area about 1911. The last teacher at the Corydon Colored School was my aunt, Leora, who had attended elementary/secondary grades at the school. She taught there longer than any other teacher so, when I was privileged to purchase the building in 1987, I renamed the school for her.
My sister, Deborah, was the last student to attend the Corydon Colored School before it was closed as a segregated school in 1950. She was the first student to integrate the Corydon Grade School. After completing high school, Deborah was named valedictorian of her 1960 graduating class.
I have many good memories growing up in Corydon. As a fifth grader, Mrs. Frances Smith, our music teacher, chose me for one of the lead roles in a school operetta titled “The Land of Dreams Come True.” Mr. Eldo Lang, my teacher that year, organized a spelling bee with a live parakeet as a prize for the winner. I won. Then in eighth grade, Mrs. Hilda Meyer chose me and my classmate Carolyn Barrow Coleman to be co-editors of the school newspaper, the Kittennette.
In high school, I continued my routine of concentrating on my scholarship. With the support of my classmates, I served as secretary-treasurer of my junior and senior classes. Also, during my junior and senior years I was a journalism student and worked on the school newspaper, the Pantherette. At the urging of my English teacher, Mrs. Margaret Elam, I participated in several scholastic contests at IU.
As I continue to reflect on our community, I realize how amazing it is that I returned to a place where I could make a difference by helping to preserve the history and heritage of families whose participation has helped to shape Cory-
don’s character. The contributions of these families extended Corydon beyond the promise and brought it closer to the character envisioned by its founders. Corydon is deeply rooted in principles of justice and fairness.
We are at a critical time in our history, a time to work toward making our community one that values all people, regardless of gender, color, religion, etc. Our privileged past has given us a unique opportunity to make the community even better if we build upon the best of our historical building blocks, not buildings, but beliefs and behaviors.