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Explore Indiana’s African American Heritage

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One of the many awe-inspiring historic sites in which to explore African American history in the Evansville, Indiana area is the Lyles Station Historic School & Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places “as a rare surviving manifestation of Indiana’s rural African American heritage.”

Located a short 40 minute drive from downtown Evansville just west of Princeton, Indiana, the area was originally settled as the town of Rivers in the early 1840’s by Joshua Lyles, a freed slave. Today it is one of the last remaining African American settlements in Indiana.

Due to the entrepreneurial spirit, tenacity, skills and talents of its founding citizens, it wasn’t long before the area blossomed from a rural enclave into a self-sustaining community encompassing dozens of homes, two general stores, a post office, lumber mill, two churches, and a schoolhouse. With a population that grew to more than 800 residents, the community was also able to incorporate a railroad station built on six acres of land donated by Jonathon Lyles, a free black man and one of its earliest settlers. In tribute to him, the town was renamed Lyles Station in 1886.

Unlike many early African American settlements that perished due to cultural, historic or economic factors, Lyle’s Station held its own. However, it was no match for a devastating flood that swept through and left a great deal of the area underwater in 1913.

Although much of the community’s vim and vigor started to dissipate thereafter, and many of its residents moved, there were others who stayed to rebuild. As a result, close to half of the area residents here are descendants of the original settling families. The only remaining original structures today are the Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a few homes, a grain elevator and the schoolhouse, which ceased use in that capacity in 1958.

In the late 1990s, the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corporation was formed, spearheaded by the work of former Lyles Station resident Stanley Madison. His tireless work, in addition to that of numerous sponsors, contributors, community members and volunteers, has restored the remaining school property structures and made great strides in preserving the oral and written histories of African-American contributions and accomplishments here and in rural southern Indiana.

Lyle’s Station is very popular with school groups and for family reunions and corporate gatherings. A visit here typically begins with a short introductory film that provides an in-depth overview of the structures, area and significance to the African American community past, present and future.

The Heritage Classroom, fashioned to look as it did back in the day, provides students the opportunity to experience a day in the life of school children in the early 1900’s. The museum here features several galleries, each depicting various aspects of the early history here, a gift shop, meeting facilities and period garden.

One of the museum galleries is The Alonzo Fields Gallery. Its namesake—Alonzo  Fields (1900-1994)—was a native of Lyles Station and holds the distinction as the first African American Chief Butler at the White House. Serving Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower in his years at the White House, Fields also wrote the book My 21 Years at The White House,and isthe subject of the modern day play  Looking Over the President’s Shoulder which is based on his real-life experiences.

In addition to numerous special events and programming held year-round, every Labor Day weekend they hold an annual New Beginnings Celebration encompassing tours, praise and worship bands, horse and wagon rides, culinary booths, a caning demonstration by area artists and craftsmen, a bevy of children’s games and other activities.

The diverse and rich African American history in the city and surrounding area is one of the things that make a visit to Evansville so unique, inspiring and exciting!

Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin 

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