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Descendants of Indiana's only African American Civil War regiment still reside in Indy neighborhood

28th Regiment of Colored Troops
Posted at 12:36 AM, Feb 17, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS, IN — The properties in Indianapolis' Norwood neighborhood have been passed down for generations. For many, the family connections can be traced back over 150 years.

Madonna Richardson Shaffner has been working to trace those roots in her own history. Her research dates back to the 1800s. More specifically, 1863 and the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment of the Civil War.

Also known as the 28th Indiana Infantry, they were the state's only African American Civil War army regiment.

Many of the soldiers who served in that unit settled and established these neighborhoods on the city's southeast side starting around 1872. Those troops bought the original lots in Norwood with pension money from their service in the 28th Infantry and their families have owned the land ever since.

Provided by the Indiana Historical Society

Shaffner was able to trace her mother's side of the family, the Parhams, all the way back to this time in Indiana's history.

"The real head of the family is Shadrac Parham.” Shaffner said, “He had eleven boys and four girls. You're talking about 100 to 150 first cousins."

And they all grew up in the Norwood neighborhood.

For Shaffner, this discovery began when she was searching for love.

“I didn’t get a date very often in high school because everyone was related, Shaffner joked. "So, I had to know 'who are you related to? What is your last name?' Honestly, I couldn’t get a date from the south side."

Being one of the many Parham descendants led Shaffner down the rabbit hole that is the history of the Norwood neighborhood. She's now considers herself quite the expert.

“Norwood is from Prospect to Beech Grove and as far as Fountain Square," Shaffner said.

Historians identify Norwood's boundaries as going from Sherman to the East, Prospect Street to the North and the railroad to the West and South.

Her dedication and passion for learning her own history also led her to discover more family.

Andrew Fowlkes Parham, 63, went from fighting Shaffner's brother to embracing him as family.

“They had an argument, and they were going to fight," Shaffner said. "His father told him 'that’s your cousin,' and mentioned the word Parham."

“My mother died in 1967,” said Shaffner. “Her mother, I think, was my mother’s first cousin.”

It's pieces of history that were almost lost, but have now been rediscovered as the family continues to dig through their Parham roots back to their beginnings in the Norwood neighborhood and the military service that led them there.

Noral Chester Parham Jr., 74, is Shaffner's cousin and a proud member of the Parham lineage.

“Sterling Parham Senior, he’s one of the first ones who started the Norwood," Parham said.

Walking through his own family history, he was able to trace his family — and their military history — back up to him.

“That’s my father there, he was in the Korean War," Parham said. “I was the last one to get drafted. They stopped the draft in September and I got drafted in August."

Noral Chester identifies family members on memory board

Like generations before, he said he never really paid much attention to his own family history - until now.

“That’s in Norwood, that’s all I know, that’s Papa’s house," Parham Jr. said. "See, and that’s all I know, so I never questioned it."

Gwendolyn Parham Arnold, 82, is Shaffner’s mother and she said she's proud of the work her daughter has done to reclaim their family history.

“Well, it’s something that I would not have done but she’s done a good job of doing it," Arnold said.

Shaffner is responsible for connecting the family dots and collecting documents, photos and memories to make sure they can continue on for generations to come.

And she's connected her family back to several important moments in local history.

“A cousin who’s recently passed, Jerry Parham, was the first black man on the SWAT team for IMPD,” said Shaffner.

“She’s one of the soldiers in the family,” Folkes said. “You know some families forget each other, it isn’t going to happen here."

But it isn't only her family who will benefit from the work she's put in, local historians are also picking up on it.

Historian, Kaila Austin said they've partnered with Indiana Landmarks, the state preservation organization "to start making more serious plans about what saving and preserving these communities looks like." She said it's important history many Black Americans across the country fight to find.

Inside Indy | The local effort to preserve Black History in Indianapolis

The Parham family is rooted in history, service, and Indianapolis' Norwood neighborhood.

But Austin says she's also found at least thirty families with original lots that have been passed down through their families after being bought with pension money from their service in the 28th Infantry.

Although many of those homes have been torn down and others were taken through eminent domain or for other projects by the city of Indianapolis.

For Shaffner, it's become more than just her own personal connections, it's about uncovering under-documented Black history in Indiana.

So far, she's been able to track down at least 100 relatives she never would have known about.

And their story isn't done being written. Much of their history archives are still developing as new information is dug up each day. Things that will now be documented properly as part of Indiana's Black history.