Sundown Town

West Terre Haute has always had the (deserved) reputation of being something of a “sundown town.”  In other words, if you were Black you might dare venture there, but “you best be out of town by sundown” if you knew what was good for you.  In all my years of living in or visiting West Terre Haute, I do not recall ever seeing an African American walking its streets.  One of my mother’s best friends was an absolutely delightful woman named Bert (Sister Bertha) Phillips who happened to be African American.  It was accepted that Bertha was most reluctant to cross the bridge and come to West T.  Usually it took a funeral to get her there.  In fact, as late as 2005, our second family, the Muyumbas, upon coming to my grandmother’s funeral expressed wariness of being anywhere in West Terre Haute other than with us at the funeral home or in their car heading back east.  I remember my grandfather telling me that once a “colored” family attempted to move into a house on the far southern edge of town (never the most hospitable or welcoming part of town no matter what your color).  They spent one night in their new home and moved out the next day.  It is unclear whether they were actually burned out, or if the threat of arson was sufficient.  In the summer of 1989 I was census worker doing pre-census canvassing.  At the first crew meeting the leader announced that it was preferable if someone “big, male and White” be assigned to canvas West Terre Haute (guess who volunteered for the assignment?).

Thus I was somewhat surprised to find that a few African Americans did indeed live in Sugar Creek Township and West Terre Haute, if only for a short while.  The 1850 census revealed 3 Blacks and one mulatto in the township.  The Black farm family was named Crenshaw.  Mr. Crenshaw was originally from North Carolina, while his wife was a native Hoosier.  So far my search has revealed little other information on them, but I suspect, due to the name and North Carolina connection, that Crenshaw was part of the Quaker-aided migration of free Black agriculturalists who moved to the state and set up small Black enclaves in the 1830s and 1840s.  Indeed there were two such settlements in eastern Vigo County, one near Riley known as the Lost Creek Settlement and the Underwood Settlement near Pimento.  The ‘Mulatto” was ten-year old Rebecca Simons, who lived with the family of White brickmaker Nelson Coltrin.  All four were gone from the area by the time of the 1860 census.   No others followed for forty years.

The 1900 census shows that Blacks became at least a small part of the in-migration, mostly foreign-born, who flocked to the town due to the growth of coalmining.  There were twenty Blacks listed in the 1900 census, all of whom clustered on Johnson Avenue in the northern part of town.  There were four families and their occupations were listed as cook, farm laborers or teamsters.  Eleven African Americans still lived in West Terre Haute in 1910, but there appears to have been a turnover.  The only family that seems to have spanned the decade were the Bradys, although Mr. Brady had died or been divorced and his wife Amanda was now married to Martin Russell.  The family heads worked at the local brick plant or as teamsters in the coal mines.  All were still clustered in the northeastern section of town.  The 1911 school enumeration for West Terre Haute showed 1098 children of school age, 9 of whom were Black.

By 1920 they were all gone.  And I have found no record of any other African Americans living in West Terre Haute since.

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