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Upcoming Conner Prairie exhibit celebrates Black history

conner prairie new exhibit
Posted at 11:03 AM, Mar 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-12 11:03:21-05

FISHERS — Dr. Charlene Fletcher has only worked at Conner Prairie for about a year, but her vision for an upcoming exhibit will take visitors through hundreds of years.

"Black history is also American history," Dr. Fletcher said. "We cannot erase history or ignore history and expect to move forward."

The exhibit, "Promised Land as Proving Ground," will take visitors through 500 years of history from pre-colonial Africa to Indiana in the 21st century.

"We have an issue when we teach African-American history; we typically begin with slavery. Black history did not begin with enslavement, nor did it end with the Civil War," Fletcher said.

It will bring the stories of Black Hoosiers to life, including the story of John Freeman.

john freeman

Freeman was a Georgia native who came to Indiana around 1844 and opened a successful restaurant in Downtown Indianapolis.

He was arrested by U.S. Marshals in 1853 after a Methodist minister in Missouri claimed Freeman was a runaway slave that he owned.

Freeman spent nine weeks in jail, and with the help of three attorneys fought in court to prove he was a free man.

"The gentleman, who was in fact, Sam, had already escaped to Canada," Fletcher explained. "[Freeman] came here. He had a very profitable business. People knew who he was, but he still was not safe in this space that we call Indiana."

Freeman won his case and sued the minister and the Marion County Circuit Court. Despite the legal victory, Freeman had to sell property to pay off debt from the case.

"The fact that he continued pushing forward despite 9 weeks in jail, despite losing what he had and still moving forward to freedom and to retain his freedom is why his story is important," Fletcher said.

The exhibit opens this summer.

"Here it is 2022. We're still having the same conversations and we're having the same conversations because we're not being honest and deliberate about engaging the history, and reconciling and healing from that history," Fletcher said.