Written by Karen Georgia Thompson
This past week, I was in Indianapolis and decided to go sightseeing: my kind of sightseeing where life meets history. I was going to look for John Freeman. Mr. Freeman’s story was compelling, and the invitation from one of the sites I read to “stroll Pennsylvania between 10th and 11th to learn more” was one I could not resist.
It was April in Indianapolis. However, I was not prepared for the rain, the hail and the biting winds that hit my face as I stepped out of the hotel and onto Monument Circle, in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument for which the circle is named. I turned east on Market and got to the corner of Pennsylvania, wondering where to go next, since that is as far as the valet knew to send me. The rain was coming harder, so I decided to ask for directions. How hard could it be to get to Pennsylvania between 10th and 11th when I was standing on Pennsylvania and Market?
My first approach was an older White female. I inquired about finding 10th Street. She stopped warily and was more than a bit nervous and hesitant. Dressed in a ball cap, running tights, sneakers and a fleece standing on the corner of the street with no umbrella, I realized she was the wrong person to approach. She attempted to respond with a reluctant: “I don’t know” as she looked up and down Pennsylvania. I guess I should have dressed more appropriately for approaching strangers on the street, in the rain. I did not help her suspicions when I turned and ran south in the rain. With no idea where I was going, I continued looking for someone who could help me.
I found Jeremy, standing under an awning, sheltered from the rain. I stopped and greeted him, then asked him for directions. He was a native of Indy. He suggested a cab or an Uber to get me there because “it was way over a mile.” As we continued to talk, I shared with Jeremy what I was looking for, and why. He was curious and admitted he had no idea who John Freeman was, but said he would try to visit Mr. Freeman someday. Feeling discouraged, and with the rain falling harder, I decided to return to my room. I was wet, my hands and feet were cold, and I had no idea how to “Find Freeman”. Besides, I had ingested my fair share of second hand weed smoke talking to Jeremy who was on his cigarette break. (Hence no selfie with Jeremy).
I returned to my room to re-group. I looked out the window, no rain, so I went back outside to revisit the quest, stepping again onto Monument Circle, this time heading north towards Meridian. The monument in the circle caught my attention so I decided to visit the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
The cornerstone for the monument was laid in 1889, but the monument was not completed and dedicated until 1902. The architect who won the competition for the design was Bruno Schmitz from Berlin, Germany. The Indiana State Legislature allocated a grant of $200,000 to build the structure. Final cost was three times that amount – a large sum for 1902. The monument was originally designed to honor the memory of Indiana’s Civil War Veterans but this memorial now stands for the men and women who were killed in all wars prior to World War 1. There are other monuments memorializing the other wars in U.S. history in the downtown area. Given the rain and the cold, none of those were visited, although I did pass them on my search to Find Freeman.
My visit to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was to find the freed slave carved on the side of the monument, an easier achievement than Finding Freeman, since the monument was easily accessible. I wanted learn more about this monument that I passed so many times but never had the occasion or inclination to visit.
The monument has four sides, facing the four directions. According to the first line of the brochure for the monument which I acquired upon entering the gift shop, the monument is “Universally recognized as one of the most outstanding achievements of Architectural and Sculptural Art.” Once I knew that, I knew I was in the right place! The monument has an observation deck which wraps around the top of the monument and provides a 360 degree view of the city.
I took the $2.00 elevator ride to the top rather than attempt the 332 stairs. A look around the gift shop with its Civil War memorabilia did make me think twice about visiting, especially since I was the only person of color in the place. The rain had stopped fall, but my clothes and hat were damp which only made me colder and more reluctant to continue.
When I got to the top, the view did not disappoint even in the rain. I could only imagine the beauty on a sunny day with clear skies. The State House was visible to the west, while landmarks like Lucas Oil Stadium appeared grey in the close distance. As I looked toward the northeast quadrant I wondered where I would Find Mr. Freeman and what he would have to say when found. In the meantime, I went down to visit the nameless freed slave sculpted into the west elevation of the monument.
I found him. There in the rain, with shackles in his hands held up to the female Victory. His face was turned away from the crowds who walk Monument Circle and the Indiana Statehouse. Instead he appears to be looking to Victory in hope for himself and his time, but also for this generation and the next. Over his head is carved “E Pluribus Unum” the same words that are on the crest of the United States, meaning – “Out of Many One.” Out of many people, we are one people? Out of many, one people matter? Out of many people, one people don’t matter? The great melting pot, where all people are free is a selective pot where all people are not guaranteed the same freedoms even in 2016. There is much work to do! What do those words mean when the lives of so many are wrapped in the strongholds of injustice?
I wanted to think that Mr. Schmitz was intentional in placing those words where they are on this set of statuaries called “Peace.” But, according to the Indianapolis Weekly, early sketches of the monument indicate that the freed slave was not included and was later added to produce the current rendition that was completed. The presence of this Black man was the input of another artist. In a time when there is no peace in the land, when divisions are so evident and violence that divides the United States plagues the land, this slave releasing his chains represented so much to me. I wondered how many people even know he was there or ponder the significance of his presence. This freed African man is the only “slave monument” in the city of Indianapolis. There is silence about slavery in Indianapolis, perhaps a reflection of Indiana’s antislavery stance. But slavery is a part of Indiana’s history, a hidden and forgotten history of the presence of slavery in the state prior to 1826.
The African descendant man on the monument made another appearance in 2011 when artist Fred Wilson proposed a statue of the freed slave for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. As chronicled by the Indianapolis Weekly, residents of the city were opposed to Wilson’s proposal for E Pluribus Unum which is not mentioned on the website. From all appearances, the sculpture was commissioned, completed and never placed on the trail due to the protests.
I was on my way to find Mr. Freeman – again – when I encountered the Civil War Museum located under the monument. The museum is very thorough in detailing the conditions and experiences of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The first few minutes of the introductory video mentions slavery and there is one reference to slavery in any of the materials on the wall. I did not know how to receive the silence on the issue of slavery as a part of the reasons for the “War for the Union.” The silence was puzzling indeed.
There are many historic signs and markers in Indianapolis. There are multiple war memorials and monuments. There are events captured in stone, a variety of figures that adorn the statehouse, but conspicuously absent from the battle scenes, the dying soldiers of various eras, the men and women who are the carved faces of Indianapolis are people of African descent. The lone figure wrapped in controversy then and now is the freed slave. I found much the same as I walked over to the Statehouse and looked at the statues on the front access way. No people of African descent. No slave history. No Civil Rights memorials in the downtown area.
And then there was John Freeman. I decided he was worth finding as I walked back into Monument Circle from the Statehouse. The decision to go was made as I saw a lone cab driving slowly toward me. The car stopped as I extended my hand. I asked the driver if he took credit cards since that was all I had. I explained that I was going to Pennsylvania between 10th and 11th and I was looking for a sign, but I did not know where it was. I needed for him to take me there and return me to the circle where he picked me up. He agreed and off we went as the rain and the hail returned.
As we drove, I told him about Mr. John Freeman, the man whose marker had me engaged in Indianapolis and Indiana history for almost three hours. He listened as I recounted what I knew about Mr. Freeman, driving slowly north on this trip to find this sign. John Freeman was a free man of African descent who moved to Indiana from Georgia in 1844. After moving to Indianapolis with $600 to his name, Mr. Freeman worked hard and started buying land. He eventually owned 4 acres of land worth over $6000. That was a lot of land and a lot of money for an African descendant man in those days.
Mr. Freeman was arrested in 1853 under the Fugitive Slave Act and placed in jail for 9 weeks until he could prove his innocence, which he eventually did. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a part of the Compromise of 1850. As a part of the laws included in the deal struck in the Senate and the House of Representatives individuals suspected of being runaway slaves could be returned to their owners, even if they were found and captured in a “free state.” In Mr. Freeman’s case, he was accused of being a run away slave from Kentucky 17 years prior. The accusation came from a slave holder who was a Methodist minister. Mr. Freeman hired lawyers to defend his case and amassed a slue of expenses – including having to pay for the man hired to guard him and bringing the witnesses who testified on his behalf from Georgia. Mr. Freeman ended up losing most of his property.
Though a free state that maintained its commitment to being anti-slavery and although Indiana sent its Hoosiers to fight the “War for the Union”, Indiana and other states were complicit in upholding laws like the Fugitive Slave Law that presumed guilt on the part of many free Africans and made assumptions of their worth and status based on the color of their skin.
We made our way north and then came south on Pennsylvania, one way into to downtown. We drove onto the block and there was nothing visible, as the rain came harder. There was no marker. There was a large old house on the east side of the street and a parking lot with a huge building looming behind it. We were stopped in front of the house. I was disappointed. We were about to pull off again and then I saw the sign across the street. I asked him to pull across the street into the parking lot so I could take a picture.
The car stopped and I walked the sloping green to the sign with the hail, wind and cold present to visit this marker erected to acknowledge the life of this man. There were no pictures, no museum shop, just a sign away from the sidewalk on a busy street where not too many people walked. I wondered how many people walked past that sign and never read it. How many people even knew that the sign was there and knew the significance of the court case? What of the significance of a law that could take a person’s life and livelihood by placing that person in jail with little or no evidence? And, what of the implications of this history on our lives today?
These days we still wrestle with issues of mass incarceration of people of African descent. We no longer call it the Fugitive Slave Law. We see a system that does not value the lives of some as they do others. We hear the stories of innocent individuals who are stopped at will and whim, placed in handcuffs and interrogated until they can prove who they are. We hear the stories of individuals who are considered wrong doers, suspects because of the color of their skin. We have also seen and heard of the death of many of these suspects, modern day lynchings on public streets, ropes replaced by guns. The lives of African descendant people are still lived in the shadows of the Fugitive Slave Law where “seizures of free blacks and freedom seekers in the north was common.” These days it is still common everywhere. Please read Mr. John Freeman’s story.
Mr. Freeman spent nine weeks in jail. He had accomplished far beyond what was expected of him as a Black man in the United States of America, having amassed the land that he acquired through hard work. He knew that he was worth more than what society valued him to be. There is much to be learned from the lives of these men.
Freedom for some of us is lived in the moment. Freedom today, while wrestling with the challenges of laws and practice that threaten our right to be free. Jeremy on the corner, the freed slave on the monument and John Freeman – three free men whose lives crossed my path in a single afternoon and helped me to know that freedom still belongs to all. Freedom is a right. Freedom is worth fighting for. Three free men who affirmed my resolve that “we who believe in freedom cannot rest ’til it comes.”
The marker for Mr. Freeman is located on Washington between 10th and 11th Streets, which is the site of the parking lot at the back of the Landmark Building at 1099 N. Meridian Street. Located at 1099 N. Meridian Street are the offices of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Life came full circle in that moment of discovery. I was in Indianapolis attending a meeting of one of the Disciples boards on which I serve. I visited that building a number of times, and had been in Indianapolis many times before they moved to that building. I too did not know anything about John Freeman, had never seen the marker, and perhaps had no reason to visit the parking lot or walk the sidewalk on Pennsylvania between 10th and 11th. I asked a few people who work at the Disciples offices or visited those offices in Indianapolis if they knew about the slave on the monument or of Mr. Freeman, none did. I am sure they are also unaware of Jeremy over on the other end of Pennsylvania. They welcomed hearing about Mr. Freeman and the freed African on the side of the “Soldiers and Sailors Monument.”
The truth is always before us, if we are willing to see and willing to lie with our eyes open, awake to what is. May these Ancestors find rest and peace, even as they continue to weep.
To see more pictures of this trip.