HISTORICAL MARKER for Mary Clark in Vincennes, Indiana (Knox County
By Eunice Trotter, Director of Indiana Landmarks’ Black Heritage Preservation Program
Imagine reading a book with chapters torn out. Or watching a movie that’s missing scenes. Or trying to describe a family when you’ve not met all of its members.
That’s what it’s like trying to understand Indiana’s history without knowing key stories.
Like the story of Mary Bateman Clark.
Mary was a slave who was brought to Indiana from Kentucky in 1814 and given her freedom … sort of. Although no longer a slave, she was immediately forced into indentured servitude, first with Benjamin J. Harrison, then with Gen. Washington Johnston, one of the most influential men in the state.
A practice common in America throughout the 18th century, indentured servitude was a contractual agreement in which one person worked for another for no pay to resolve a debt, such as the cost of passage to the states, or to learn a trade.
The difference between that model and Mary’s servitude is that hers was not voluntary.
Fortunately, abolitionist attorney Amory Kinney was willing to fight Mary’s indenture. While the lawsuit he filed, Mary Clark, a woman of color vs. General W. Johnston, lost in the Knox County Circuit Court, Kinney successfully appealed the decision before the Indiana Supreme Court in 1821, creating a precedent that others were able to use to effectively put an end to indentured servitude in Indiana.
As a result of Mary’s contributions, a historical marker now stands in her honor at the Knox County Courthouse in Vincennes, a fitting acknowledgment of a remarkable story that’s even more remarkable to me because, as I discovered several years ago, Mary was my great-great-great-grandmother. But her story isn’t just a part of my family’s story; it’s a part of Indiana’s story.
I am aware that, by knowing Mary’s story and its connection to my family, I’m an exception among Black Hoosiers. Many don’t know their roots. I have become increasingly aware of this challenge since I joined Indiana Landmarks last year to lead the organization’s Black Heritage Preservation Program. As we seek to save and celebrate places significant to the state’s Black history, we first need to identify the history.
To do that, we need help. That’s why I’m asking you to contact us if you know about stories or places that could help fill those gaps. Email us at [email protected] to share your story.
Indiana’s history is not complete without the story of Black Indiana, and that story starts with Black families. After all, as I discovered, digging deeper into the stories of your family might allow you to uncover a history maker like Mary Bateman Clark. And, even if you don’t, it will allow you to fill in missing chapters of the story of Indiana.