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Indy's Prominent Colored Citizens, 1880

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

On Tuesday, Jan. 6, 1880, the Indianapolis Journal, published 4,500-word essay on prominent Black citizens living in the Circle City. Almost all of them have something in common with Robert Jefferson. For example, this first sketch tells us that Robert's friend and employer, Dr. W.C. Thompson, and Thompson's partner, Dr. J.A. Woodburn, helped Samuel A. Elbert become a medical doctor.

James D. Bagby, who was publisher of the city's first Black newspaper, the Indianapolis Leader, established in 1878, also was a neighbor of Robert's, living next door to him on Minerva Street in the 1880 census and, apparently, living with another sketch subject, Anderson Lewis, a blacksmith.

In this article, Robert is mentioned along with Axom Stewart, Augustus Turner, and William Franklin as "several men of color in Indianapolis who have attained the age of three score and 10."

The premise of the entire article, published in a newspaper aimed at white progressives, seems to have been intended to show how industrious their Black neighbors can be when given the same opportunities and privileges, such as access to education and the ability to own their own property and run their own businesses. On the surface, it might seem a bit condescending to today's readers, but one must keep in mind the fact that it was published only about 16 years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States. It is an obvious effort to counter the "conventional wisdom" of whites during those days that Blacks were inferior and totally unable to take care of themselves or be successful in their own right.

Also, keep in mind that while those old negative ideals about Blacks are rarely expressed today, at least not in legitimate journalism, they are certainly deeply engrained in American minds because of attempts to justify the institution of slavery promulgated by proslavery activists since the first enslaved Africans were brought to the American Colonies in 1619.

What I find most interesting is how sure the writers and editors of the Journal were that stories like these would, or even could, help to erase these ideals from American education, society, and enterprise. I believe these men (and women) would be astonished, shocked, and disheartened to see that, 140-plus years later, so much of it still remains in the American subconscious. I'm sure they truly believed that those days were behind us, once Blacks were given the same opportunities.

Surely, they may have been so, but the Southern states weren't about to allow it, and "Jim Crow" laws ensured that it wouldn't happen so easily or quickly. Even 58 years after the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. People who have inherited the same bigotry of and hatred for Blacks (and their aversion to allowing Blacks to have advantages, even if it hurts poor white Americans, too) are back to their old tricks of working to eliminate the rights of Blacks to participate in the election process.

Over the next week or so, I will be posting the entire article, starting to day with the introduction and the sketch about Dr. Elbert.


Interesting Sketches of Some of the Prominent Colored Residents of Indianapolis: Dr. Elbert, Hon. James S. Hinton, John G. Brittan, The Bagby Brothers, and Others

In the dark days of negro slavery in the United States, when pursed by the baying hounds of slave-hunters behind her, Eliza, with her boy strained to her breast, made fearful leaps for freedom across the ice-blocked Ohio, only to come under the shadow of a fugitive-slave bill, as she stepped upon the free (?) soil, the State of Ohio was thought to be a sort of half-way house to liberty.

Indiana stood, in those days, with warning hand uplifted to repel from her territory the oppressed black man seeking to throw off his fetters. A quarter of a century has passed by, within which time not only has the fugitive-slave bill been repealed, but universal emancipation has abolished negro slavery in the United States, and the gift of the franchise has put the colored race on an equality with the white race before the law.

And now Indiana, the stronghold of Democracy in the North, where color-prejudice has bitterly contested every inch of progress in the battle for human rights, even this State has become a haven of refuge for the poor, disheartened negroes of the South seeking a chance for themselves in the struggle for life.

Democracy has greeted these inoffensive immigrants with a howl of rage, which is gradually subsiding to a wall of despair, as it is found to be true that only a small proportion of these incomers are of the sex and age required for voters in the State of Indiana. Can it be that this wall is prophetic in part—that it arises from fear of a possible future when the boxes may be filled with ballots cast by the hands of their wives and sisters?

However that may be, it seems to be true that the State of Indiana is growing in favor with the colored people as a permanent home, and that the more intelligent among them feel that nowhere are they granted better opportunities for securing for themselves the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

No unprejudiced observer of human nature as revealed in faces can fail to note that a large proportion of the dark-hued faces of the colored citizens of Indianapolis whear an expression of intelligent purpose, and a brave self-respect which makes them respected by all sensible people.

A few years ago, when color prejudice confronted the enfranchised race in school, in business, and in society, it was often said that the colored race was dying out in the North; that those who could lay claim to any infusion of Caucasian blood were denying all share in the Ethiopian.

Now, however, it is gratifying to be able to record that, among the colored people themselves there is no disposition to deny their heritage, but that a commendable price of race is evident among them. That this pride is commendable is certainly true, because so long as they felt themselves inferior by nature, they lacked the greatest stimulus to exertion.

Since no opportunity for thorough education is denied them, and since doors to social and political preferment are opened to them on every side, self-confidence is awakened among them, and the ambition, common to all children of this republic, whisper[s] in their ears that everything is possible to industry, perseverance, and energy.

While, among the colored citizens of Indianapolis, according to their own estimate of themselves, there are no men of large wealth, as is the case in Cincinnati and some other cities, where for many years they have had a better chance to carry on lucrative business; yet, in Indianapolis, there is a larger proportion of colored men owning the homes in which they live than those other cities. For the most part our colored citizens are self-supporting. Although the financial crisis, which has crippled temporarily the white citizens of Indianapolis, has affected the colored people seriously also, as the laboring classes of all colors most suffer most in such business troubles, yet the rising tide of work and business will lift all alike upon their feet again.

Samuel A. Elbert, M.D.

Among the intelligent, educated colored citizens of Indianapolis is the dignified and urbane gentleman, Dr. Samuel A. Elbert, whose office is on Indiana Avenue. Firmness of purpose and inflexible perseverance are written upon this man’s face, and his history but proves that those qualities will enable a man to attain whatever object he may propose to himself in life.

Dr. Elbert was born in Kent County, Maryland, in 1832. His father, who was a free man, dying while Samuel was quite young, left his mother in poverty with several children to support. At the early age of nine years he was obligated to assist his mother by working on a farm. This he continued to do until he was twenty-two years of age, when he went to Baltimore where he learned to read and write, not in school, of course, but by private instruction. A thirst for knowledge was awakened in him which impelled him to study and work for a thorough education, even through seventeen years of mature life. From Baltimore he went to New York, and then to Cincinnati in the fall of 1860. All this time he was earning a livelihood by working in the houses of the rich. During that fall, however, he entered school in Athens County, Ohio, but when the war broke out in 1861 as servant to Stanley Matthews, who held the office of lieutenant-colonel, and Rutherford B. Hayes, who was major in the same regiment.

In July 1862, Dr. Elbert returned to Ohio and spent part of the next year at school in Iberia. In April 1863, he entered Oberlin College, where he remained until his sophomore year, when in 1866, he came to Indianapolis, where he had taught one year previously. He was engaged in teaching here until 1868, when he entered the office of Drs. W.C. Thompson and J.A. Woodburn. It had now become his fixed purpose to obtain a degree in medicine, and although he married in July 1869, and was obliged to work for the support of himself and wife at the same time that he was pursuing his studies, yet his purpose never wavered.

A correspondence with several medical colleges promised him admittance to but but one—in Keokuk, Iowa. Being poorly able to incur the expense of going so far to attend lectures, he began to feel discouraged, when opportunely the Indiana Medical College was opened in 1869. Through the intercession of Dr. Woodburn he was first admitted on sufferance, as it were, being permitted to listen to the lectures in consideration of services rendered about the college; but soon afterwards he was required to pay the regular matriculation fee.

At the close of the first course of lectures one of the faculty told him that if he would stay about the college for three or four years, he would obtain a very good knowledge of medicine. This stung his pride, and he answered, “I have matriculated regularly, and I intend to graduate next year.” Color prejudice was aroused, and woman prejudice as well, for, at that time there were three women students in the College. So offended dignity asserted by declaring that the college should no longer open to negroes or women. Dr. Elbert was not to be put down so easily, and finding that the law was on his side, as he had been admitted and his fee paid, the faculty met next morning and rescinded their resolution.

In 1871, Dr. Elbert received the degree of M.D. from the Indiana Medical College, being the first colored person graduated from any institution of learning in Indiana(*)—a noble example of patient courage and unswerving devotion to a cherished purpose! When this man entered upon his professional lifework at the age of thirty-nine years, although it may seem late in life, yet he was fit. For the past eight years he has practiced medicine successfully in Indianapolis, and even in those years of financial disaster, he has saved enough to become the owner of three houses.

UP NEXT: James Hinton


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