Evansville Hose House No.9 was once manned entirely by African-Americans. Zerah Priestly Carter was the first African-American woman to graduate from Evansville College in 1938. George Buckner was born to a slave woman, but later came to Evansville to serve as a doctor in 1890.
And though they are integral parts of Evansville’s history, most city residents have probably never heard of them. The Evansville African American Museum would like to change that.
“We have a lot of really rich history here that people do not know about,” says Museum Director Lu Porter.
The museum is filled with glossy, easy to use interactive exhibits. Brief histories about prominent African-Americans from Evansville are on display, as is a timeline of the civil rights movement and the role Evansville played during that time. A short film further explores Evansville’s historic African-American neighborhoods. Exhibits are routinely rotated because there is not enough display space for them all.
The museum itself is a piece of history: the last standing building of Lincoln Gardens. The 17-building apartment complex was completed in 1938 as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. A number of rundown shacks in the area — known as Baptisttown — had to be razed to make room for the new complex.
“This was the place to be. It was and still is the hub of our city,” says Porter. “In later years, it became a housing project. And in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s when people started leaving. But I see on Facebook all the time, people posting pictures talking about how this place was back in the day.”
By the 1990s, the buildings had fallen into disrepair and were slated to be razed. In 1997, Sondra Matthews — the editor and publisher of Our Times Newspaper — and a small group of former residents went to the city to see if they could obtain one of the old apartment buildings. Matthews wanted to save the building First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had dedicated in 1937, but that structure was no longer sound. So instead, the group bought the building at 579 S. Garvin St. from the Evansville Housing Authority for $1.
“When I returned from (a trip to) South Africa, I learned that Lincoln Gardens was going to be demolished,” says Matthews. “The basis of our economic life was going to be torn down as well. I just thought that if this happens, our grandchildren will not know what we had, the life we lived in the Lincoln Gardens area. They would not know how successful and prosperous we were.”
If you’d like to see what one of the old apartments looked like in the heyday of Lincoln Gardens, you’re in luck. When Matthews helped renovate the building, she made sure one apartment was saved in its original state — hardwood floors and all. The apartment space is stunningly small (an extra bed was kept folded up in the kitchen during the day), but some held up to eight family members.
The museum also has a full room dedicated to Lincoln High School, Evansville’s African-American school. There are letter jackets, trophies, and even a plaque commemorating a basketball national championship.
“There is still history that has not been told,” says Matthews. “Hopefully with the fundraising going on, perhaps it could be expanded to another floor and another wing, so that we can have more exhibit room. Black people came to Indiana to escape slavery in Kentucky and Tennessee. So there are many years of a black community in Evansville.”
For more information about the Evansville African American Museum, visit evansvilleaamuseum.wordpress.com or call Lu Porter at 812-423-5188.