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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Long-Awaited Recognition

Baptisttown joins the National Register of Historic Places

Baptisttown, the neighborhood surrounding the Evansville African American Museum at South Garvin Street — Sondra Matthews Way — and Lincoln Avenue, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Those who worked for years to achieve the designation could be forgiven for uttering sighs of relief. With Baptisttown’s history now officially recognized, officials say the museum has potential new funding avenues.

They say being on the register also brings newfound pride for the museum and what it represents in Evansville.

“Some people don’t even know where Baptisttown is,” says Kori Miller, executive director of the museum. “I grew up in Baptisttown and didn’t know it was called that. ‘Baptisttown’ was a pejorative. Some people say, ‘Why should we even celebrate that?’ People took that pejorative and turned it into something positive. There was a togetherness there. There was a pride. Those are things I’d like to see come back to the community.”

The effort to get Baptisttown on the National Register was supposed to start in 2008 when the Evansville Housing Authority tore down the nearby Erie Homes apartment complex. Part of the agreement was that EHA would pay for a National Register nomination for Baptisttown.

But that never happened, says Kelley Coures, who was director of the Evansville Department of Metropolitan Development for the last 10 years under former Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. Instead, the application did not lift off until 2021, when Indiana Landmarks became involved.

DMD hired, for $12,000, Indianapolis consultant Kurt Garner, who helped prepare around 200 National Register applications and already was preparing another in the Evansville area.

Coures says Baptisttown had social and cultural significance, boosting its case for inclusion. The neighborhood also was found to have dozens of historic resources such as Lincoln School, a business district, and more.

The process included a mandatory public meeting — “there was no negative feedback from anybody,” Coures says — and after final reviews by the U.S. Department of the Interior and Indiana Department of Natural Resources, local officials learned in December 2023 that Baptisttown landed on the National Register.

To mark the designation, the city will place signs in the area. The city hopes to have one at the museum — in the National Register’s signature black and gold — ready for installation in the first quarter of 2024.

Coures also would like to place markers at Fifth and Cherry Streets where a Carnegie library once stood but was torn down to build Welborn Clinic. Evansville’s library system was segregated until 1952. Another sign is eyed for Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard and Cherry Street on the grounds of Kennedy Tower, the site of a segregated YMCA.

Neighborhood children swam at Miller Pool, which was segregated until 1956. Baptisttown also was the site of a Ku Klux Klan march in 1968.

“There are several places I’d like to get historical markers to celebrate important places that aren’t covered by the National Register,” Kelley says. “In the next couple years, I’ll be lobbying to get these sites marked with a plaque.”

Coures says the designation for Baptisttown “is there forever” and “sends a beacon around the world. Tourists go around the country and world who only travel to see Black history landmarks.”

Baptisttown’s placement on the National Register can mean only good things for the museum, says Miller, who hopes it will help the facility secure some additional funding from organizations devoted to historic preservation.

“The door has been opened,” he says.

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Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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