Welcome back! In this, our fourth Evansville adventure, we’re delving into the area’s African-American history.
Now, let me just put this out there from the get-go: the Evansville African-American Museum is one of the best African-American museums I have ever visited, and it is still a work in progress!
The stage is definitely set, as it were, once you pull up to this former federal housing project–the Lincoln Gardens–part of which has been restored as the museum’s home.
Located just east of downtown, Lincoln Gardens was originally built in 1938, becoming the cultural hub of the Evansville Black community. It has long since played a significant role in the history of Blacks not only here but also around the state and across the tristate area.
The reconstructed exterior is the beginning of the fascinating story here with a great deal of Afrocentric symbolism, including the columns fashioned like the African Baobab tree, the tangerine, golden and reddish-brown color scheme and the North Star quilt pattern that directed slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad is used in the gate.
Once inside, you will find the original floors and many other original structural elements, including the delineators that separated the individual apartments. The exhibits here are simply extraordinary.
The Oral History Wall encompasses videos of the community’s elders– some living and some who have passed on–talking about their experiences here throughout the years and how the neighborhood residents created their own shops, funeral parlors, doctor’s offices, grocery store–everything to be self-sustaining and supporting.
A timeline shows Evansville’s history alongside African-American history, and the LCD Room tells the tale of the “Divine Nine,” four Black sororities and five Black fraternities that were influential in the history of the tate. There is also n historical video, interactive audio stations and an outstanding wall of fame honoring personalities from Evansville and others who influenced the landscape of the Black community in Indiana and further afield.
LYLES STATION HISTORIC SCHOOL & MUSEUM
Another awe-inspiring historic site in which to explore African-American history in the Evansville area is the Lyles Station Historic School & Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places “as a rare surviving manifestation of Indiana’s rural African-American heritage.”
Located a short 40-minute drive from downtown Evansville just west of Princeton, Ind., the area was originally settled as the town of Rivers in the early 1840s by Joshua Lyles, a freed slave. Today it is one of the last remaining African-American settlements in Indiana.
Due to the entrepreneurial spirit, tenacity, skills and talents of its founding citizens, it wasn’t long before the area blossomed from a rural enclave into a self-sustaining community encompassing dozens of homes, two general stores, a post office, lumber mill, two churches and a schoolhouse. With a population that grew to more than 800 residents, the community was also able to incorporate a railroad station built on six acres of land donated by Jonathon Lyles, a free Black man and one of its earliest settlers. In tribute to him, the town was renamed Lyles Station in 1886.
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!