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A Portrait of Black Life in a Young State

Records from a small black agricultural community that once flourished in St. Joseph County contradict the image of life under state-sanctioned segregation.

Most of what’s known of African-American settlements in Indiana in the nineteenth century comes through census records, county recorder’s archives and the occasional building.

In rare cases–such as Lyles Station–the settlers’ descendants still inhabit the community and maintain its legacy, but many black pioneer settlements have gone the way of the Lick Creek Settlement, long since overtaken by the Hoosier National Forest in Orange County.

To the north, most evidence of the small black agricultural community that once flourished in St. Joseph County has been relegated to Porter graveyard within Potato Creek State Park. That’s the final resting place of Samuel Huggart, a free black Virginia native who applied to purchase 80 acres in St. Joseph County in 1834.

By the late 1840s, Samuel and his brother Andrew Huggart with their families had settled the area, which came to be known as Union Township. The settlement extended one square mile, bounded by what is now Osborne Road to the north, Indiana Highway 4 to the south, Mulberry Road to the east and Oak Road to the west.

Despite a constitutional ban on black immigration into Indiana after 1851, Union Township was the destination for a number of free blacks from Virginia and the Carolinas, including Benjamin Bass, Noah Boone, and Hardy Manual.

Records of Union Township contradict the image of life under state-sanctioned segregation. The settlement’s black farmers worked in tandem with their white neighbors at harvest time, and exchanged invitations to each others’ homes. The Huggarts’ children were educated in the mostly white school at Olive Branch.

The first black man to seek public office in St. Joseph County, Andrew Huggart was well respected beyond the rural enclave. “He was a good man,” read his 1881 obituary in the South Bend St. Joseph County Register, “beloved and respected by all his neighbors, and had many friends in this city.”

In 1880, the US Census counted 28 black residents at Union Township. Soon afterward, in keeping with a national trend, residents began to quit the rural life for manufacturing jobs in South Bend. The original Huggart farmstead was sold in 1893.

The friendships that were forged across color lines among pioneers in St. Joseph County persisted, however. According to oral histories taken in the 1970s, rural white residents remembered being taken as children to visit their former neighbors after the black settlers had relocated in the city.

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