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African-American history in Evansville

LYSA ALLMAN-BALDWIN | 2/24/2012, 9:39 p.m.

Unlike many early African- American settlements that perished due to cultural, historic or economic factors, Lyles Station held its own.

However, it was no match for a devastating flood that left a great deal of the area under-water in 1913.

Although much of the community's vim and vigor started to dissipate thereafter and many of its residents moved, there were others who stayed to rebuild. As a result, close to half of the area residents here are descendants of the original settling families. The only remaining original structures today are the Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a few homes, a grain elevator and the schoolhouse, which was retired in 1958.

In the late 1990s, the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corporation was formed, spearheaded by the work of former Lyles Station resident Stanley Madison. His tireless work, in addition to that of numerous sponsors, contributors, community members and volunteers, has restored the remaining school property structures and made great strides in preserving the oral and written histories of African-American contributions and accomplishments here and in rural southern Indiana.

Lyles Station is very popular with school groups and for family reunions and corporate gatherings. A visit here typically begins with a short Introductory film that provides an in-depth overview of the structures, area and significance to the African- American community past, present and future.

The Heritage Classroom, fashioned to look as it did back in the day, gives students the opportunity to experience a day in the life of school children in the early 1900s.

The museum here features several galleries, each depicting various aspects of the early history here, a gift shop, meeting facilities and period garden.

One of the museum galleries is the Alonzo Fields Gallery. Its namesake--Alonzo Fields (1900-1994)--was a native of Lyles Station and holds the distinction as being the first African-American chief butler at the White

House. Serving Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower in his years at the White House, Fields also wrote the book "My 21 Years at the White House" and is the subject of the modern-day play "Looking Over the President's Shoulder," which is based on his real-life experiences.

In addition to numerous special events and programming held year-round, every Labor Day weekend they hold an annual New Beginnings Celebration, which encompasses tours, praise and worship bands, horse and wagon rides, culinary booths, demonstrations by area artists and craftsmen, a bevy of children's games and other activities.

The diverse and rich African-American history in the city and surrounding area is one of the things that make a visit to Evansville so unique, inspiring and exciting!

Next up, we're delving into the culinary side of Evansville!