Researching African-American History in Indiana

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by Lydia Lum

Ask Dr. Tim Lake about early Black settlements in Indiana. He’ll share how he and Wabash College students have discovered that, 150 years ago, Black-White relations were not nearly as polarized as one might assume.

“It was the Quaker influence,” says Lake, director of the college’s Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies (MXIBS). “Quakers were willing to sell land to Blacks. When Indiana law required Blacks to pay $500 in order to settle in the state, there were plenty of Quakers who paid for them.”

The finding is among many in a research project pegged to Indiana public markers identifying African-Americans. For five summers, Wabash student interns combed monuments, grave sites and churches to document the cultural influence of Blacks. The project is part of an ongoing effort to bring the MXIBS deeper into the college’s academic mission, says Lake, also an associate professor of English.

Established in 1970, the MXIBS offers educational, cultural and social support to all students as well as other constituencies on campus and in Crawfordsville, the town of 14,000 where Wabash is located, tucked among corn fields. As one of the few remaining all-men’s liberal arts colleges in the country, Wabash has an enrollment of 900, including 6 percent Black who are recruited heavily by alumni. Wabash men hail from 34 states; about 20 percent proceed to law or medical school and another 55 percent to other graduate-level study.

When Wabash students fanned out across the state for the public markers project, they pored through historical society records, shot photos and video of the various sites, and audio-taped interviews with historians and other local experts. Since then, Lake and others have digitized the materials for a database they hope will go live this year.

“Tim leads students to interrogate what it means to be human and to articulate for themselves their own ways to make a difference in the world,” Dr. Gary Phillips, dean of the college, said in campus announcements when Lake gained tenure last year.

The MXIBS was established when Black students demanded cultural recognition. It is now housed in a $2 million, two-story building. Among other things, students mentor and tutor youths in Crawfordsville. While the institute has long provided space for ethnic revelry and fellowship, Lake, who became director in 2006, believes student cultural centers “cannot only celebrate ourselves but also be places of inquiry and knowledge production.”

To that end, he has launched an academic journal called Letter X, which he hopes will publish annually beginning this year, featuring writings about the Black experience from Wabash faculty and students and from elsewhere in the country. The 2008 inaugural edition of Letter X included articles examining the environmental impact of colonialism on Kenya and how and why African-American literature has historically dealt so heavily with protest.

In 2008, Lake and the MXIBS also launched a lecture series named after John W. Evans, the first Black man to graduate from Wabash. The inaugural address coincided with the centennial anniversary of Evans’ graduation. As with Letter X, Lake also aims for a lecture to take place annually on campus.

Future research projects like the public markers undertaking fuel Lake’s hopes of turning MXIBS into a destination for out-of-state scholars wanting to study the impact of African-Americans on the Midwest and the Midwest on them.

A native of Fort Wayne, Ind., Lake teaches courses in English, philosophy and rhetoric. Before joining Wabash, he had been an administrator at Manchester College’s Black cultural center.

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