ANDERSON, Ind. — Susan L. Hall-Dotson, coordinator of African American history at the Indiana Historical Society, believes most Hoosiers know little to nothing about the history of slavery in Indiana.
“When Indiana became a state, those who had them, kept their slaves,” she said. “Because we are not seen as a slave state, it makes people think it was an abolitionist state, which it was not.”
This year marks the 200th year since slavery was abolished in Indiana through an Indiana Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Polly v. Lasselle.
Another case the following year, Mary Bateman Clark v. General Washington Johnston, abolished indentured servitude, which was used as an end run around the slavery prohibition of the state’s 1816 constitution.
In fact, Indiana has been far from a safe haven for African Americans, Hall-Dotson said. The state has a history of preventing black people from moving to the state without a “sponsor,” which she said is code for “master;” Ku Klux Klan leadership at the highest levels of government in the 1920s; and sundown towns that did not allow black residency.
Hall-Dotson said Hoosiers also are quick to pull forth Levi Coffin and the state’s Underground Railroad history in which homes owned by white people were opened to escaped slaves. But that didn’t become active until the mid-1820s, after slavery was abolished, and that didn’t mean the white conductors believed black people were their equals, she said.
“(Indiana) also was a pass through, not a stop, and I think people don’t realize they didn’t really stay,” she said. Most slaves, she said, were on their way to Canada.
A 2017 Southern Poverty Law Center survey revealed American schools continue to fail to teach the difficult facts associated with slavery. According to the survey, what is taught about the controversial practice and what is contained in textbooks is out of context, incomplete and sentimentalized.
The Indiana Department of Education does provide some materials related to slavery in the Hoosier state, but according to website statistics, they are rarely accessed. The information also is available through materials available in libraries and through historical societies.
Darren Oliver, who is in his fifth year teaching U.S. history at Anderson High School, is a graduate of Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School, one of three historically black high schools in Indiana.
In spite of his background, Oliver, like many people, understood the history of slavery in Indiana in the context that Hoosiers took the side of the North in the Civil War. That, he said, is part of what leaves people with the impression there never was slavery in Indiana.
“I do think a lot of people do divide us into North and South,” he said. “Especially, after winning that war and being a part of the North, it was advantageous for a state like Indiana to do so, to move even further away from the people who were on the losing side. It also was a way that maybe Indiana could make itself seem more moral.”
Indiana’s academic standards also requires the mention of slavery just a handful of times between fourth grade and high school.
However, Oliver said understanding the full impact of slavery in Indiana is important for his students, and he intends to research the subject so he can better incorporate it into the curriculum. The high school also offers an Indiana Studies class for which this information is crucial.
“We are still in a nation that was greatly affected by slavery. And I feel the more facts we give our students to make them informed students, we want to do that,” he said. “I am excited to teach my students about it because it definitely would add an extra level of engagement when we talk about slavery.”