Indianapolis News and HeadlinesIndianapolis Local NewsIndianapolis


African Americans in Indianapolis: Local scholar profiles Black historical figures in the Circle City

african americans in indianapolis.jpg
Posted at 3:18 PM, Feb 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-03 14:02:14-05

INDIANAPOLIS — David Leander Williams is a native Hoosier and scholar who is now on a mission to inspire young people.

Williams collected the stories of notable African Americans whose stories have yet to be celebrated in the way they should for his new book “African American in Indianapolis.”

The project was inspired by a conversation and experience with his niece.

“Uncle D, I have a project. I have to write about outstanding African-American individuals or events that occurred during the 20th Century,” she said.

The two went to Central Library in search of books that shared the history of African Americans in Indianapolis. Williams says there was hardly anything.

“I became angry and I said somebody should do something about this,” Williams said. “I had to do it.”

The book tells the stories of Polly Strong and Mary Bateman Clark two slaves in the territory who fought for their freedom.

It also talks about the establishment of the Bethel AME Church, which provided sanctuary and spiritual support to escaped slaves and freed Blacks who ventured north.

Williams is a Crispus Attucks High School alum. A man named David Curtis Stephenson, who later became prominent with the Ku Klux Klan, was able to convince city leaders to create a high school specifically for African Americans.

Stephenson wanted to create a high school that was doomed to fail – but Dr. Mathias Norcock, the first principal, wouldn’t let that happen.

“He was able to go around the country [and] hire the most outstanding scholars in the country. Many had masters or PhD degrees but could not teach in white high schools or colleges because of racism,” Williams said. “He brought college professors to the high school, so our education was not inferior. It was superior.”

Williams wants to highlight the key players in our city’s history – like those who founded and cultivated the area that became Indianapolis' Black cultural epicenter in the 1920's -- Indiana Avenue.

He hopes history can be a healer.

“I'm hoping my book will encourage the Generation X'ers and Z's to know they come from a people who were hard working, who were honorable, and who helped and loved one another,” he said. “I want them to return to the time period where we were able to love one another and not fight one another. So if I can do that, I think my humble effort would be fantastic.”

The book was published by Indiana University.

Williams is now working on his next project, which focuses on the contributions of influential African American women at the turn of the century. It’s expected to be released in 2024.