Return to Sundown Town

In a previous blog entry I conjectured that the 1920s was the last time an African American dared live in West Terre Haute.  Since then, due to some newly available records and one I overlooked, I can extend their tenure until at least 1939.  I also discovered that West T. is officially listed as a Sundown town by James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns.

Through the now available digital archive of Black newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder (it is online at the IUPUI Library website thanks partly to the library’s Associate Dean named Robin Crumrin), I learned that several families still called West Terre Haute home during the Great Depression. 

One of the early families were the Colemans (or Coalman).  Wesley, wife Alice and daughter Mattie lived on N. 4th Street and he listed his occupation as farmer.  Wesley was likely born into slavery in Kentucky in 1859.  Wesley and Alice were a devoted couple.  She gave him a surprise birthday party in 1912.  Sadly, Wesley died in March, 1914.  Alice soon followed, dying within ten days of her husband.  The Recorder noted that “Grief for her loving companion and la grippe” were the causes.

Next door to the Colemans were the Kanabbs.   Henry, a teamster, and Elizabeth had 6 children, five of them daughters. It is possible that one of the Kanabb girls is the lone Black student at West Terre Haute High  School in 1916.  The picture below is of the Sophomore class, which may have included my grandmother.

But no African American family lived in West Terre Haute longer than the Browns, although the Manuel family was a close second.  Spencer Brown was born in Kentucky in 1860 but by 1908 he was a driving a wagon for a wholesale grocer and living in West Terre Haute.  He did a little farming on the side.  In that year he married Delilah Davis, also of West Terre Haute, and a divorced housekeeper more than twenty years his junior.  Three years later Raymond Brown was born.  It is possible that Raymond was the first African American born in West Terre Haute.  The Browns were the constant in African American life in WTH.  They saw the flow and ebb of the town’s Black population from their house at 522 S. Seventh Street.

Delilah died in 1923, Spencer five years later.  Ray and his sister Katherine were the only African Americans listed on the 1930 census.  They still lived in the family home, but no occupation was listed for either.  Though the census shows them to be the lone “survivors,” various members of the Manuel family seemed to move in and out of the town in the thirties. Their family had lived in West Terre Haute since at least 1910.  In 1939 the two families joined, in a way, when Ray Brown married Vernon Wood Manuel, widow of Leonard Manuel.  Ray, now working as a porter, still lived in the family home, but the couple soon moved to Terre Haute, where Ray worked as a porter and custodian until his death in 1954.  Vernon lived to be 95 years old.

So, Raymond Brown, among the first African Americans to be born in West Terre Haute was quite possibly the last to live there in the Twentieth Century.   WTH was likely never a town that embraced citizens of color, but why did attitudes become so hardened after 1940?  Was it the depression and the scramble for work that saw Whites highly resent competition from Blacks?  It is interesting to note that 1910 was apogee of the town’s Black population (tho even then it was only about 20).  Once Blacks were gone and few in town came into social contact with them was it easier for the racism to harden?  At any rate, West Terre Haute soon came to be known, as it is today, as a racist Sundown Town. 

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