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How Indiana's Historical Marker Program Highlights Black History

Leon Bates
Posted at 2:42 PM, Feb 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-27 22:42:16-05

INDIANAPOLIS, IN — You may recognize the metal historical markers with the outline of Indiana around the city or state. Right now, there are nearly 750 across Indiana and about eighty of them are dedicated to Black history topics.

In honor of Black History Month, we spoke with the man behind three of them, Army Veteran, Leon Bates.

One of them is the historical marker on Lieutenant Cornel Joseph H. Ward MD, at 2140 Boulevard Place.

Bates said it started with his work as a Pan-African Studies major. “He was a research project when I was at IUPUI,” Bates said.

“I found a newspaper article about an African American police officer, who died in Indianapolis in 1922, at Ward Sanitarium. So, the first thing was to figure out, what was Ward Sanitarium but of course the building was long gone. It was torn down 1965-1966, when they built the interstate.”

His curiosity resulted in answers through his research.

Historical Markers: Lt. Col. Joseph H. Ward

“You can just say I’m an archive rat. I love the archives and the library,” said Bates. “Dr. Ward was the first African American to lead a U.S. Army field hospital. First African American to lead a veteran’s hospital. First African American to lead a major hospital in the United States.”

In a time of segregation, Indy’s Ward Sanitarium was the longest-lived Black hospital in Central Indiana.

“This is how some of your first black nurses in Indiana got trained,” Bates said. “His story had basically gone untold until I stumbled into it and then sent the application to Kacey and Nicole.”

Indiana Historical Bureau Historical Marker Program director, Casey Pfeiffer and Public Historian and Editor of Indiana History Blog, Nicole Poletika are two women out of the team who work on the state’s Historical Marker Program.

They know Bates’s research well, each robust application he submits, they take the information and verify all the facts.

Historical Markers: John Tucker

Overall, it takes about one year to cross-check references and vet the applications for statewide significance and primary sources, before each word is put in the marker made of cast in aluminum.

Pfeiffer said these state markers date back to 1946. “Language has changed, research standards have changed,” said Pfeiffer.

New resources like Ancestry.com help the team of researchers put more Hoosier Black history into art.

“(We) Continue to see the numbers grow. So, for instance this past marker cycle, we’re working currently on sixteen new markers, four of those, twenty-five percent, are black history related,” said Pfeiffer.

Only about ten percent of the completed markers are Black history related and Pfeiffer said there are still many more Black stories to tell in the form of markers in Indiana.

“You look at Indiana avenue, the rich history that existed there, how much of the community was displaced either for the building of IUPUI, other areas of the city for highway development. So again, not that markers are the end all be all, but they are one way that we can help to share that story of what may no longer be standing,” said Pfeiffer.

“We definitely need the public to apply for more markers that commemorate the civil rights movement, Black power movement because we’ve discovered through our research that those events happened here,” said Poletika.

Poletika explained that these markers only come to life when people like Bates apply.

“I treat the application as sacred. And I’m honored that they trust me to do this research in an inclusive and accurate way,” said Poletika.

“I was very careful when I researched and wrote it. They were very careful when they reviewed my research,” Bates said.

Dedicated community members like Bates, spend hours to bring unknown Black stories to life.

He considers it time well spent to create tangible reminders of our past that last long after death and demolition in our town.

“Yes, they last a lifetime,” said Bates. “And I’ve got a list of a few more I’m going to do. These people need to be recognized.”

Each marker cost $3,300. Bates said he got at least one of them covered by the ‘American Legion Post 25’ in Princeton.

If you’re interested in applying, mid-July is the deadline for the next cycle of historical marker applications. The Indiana Historical Bureau starts accepting applications in April; the board approves applications in September; and then the team pulls more documents.

Then the following spring or summer the marker is installed.

For more on the historical marker programclick here.

Historical Markers: Aaron Richard Fischer

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