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Home » Local scholar profiles Black historical figures in the Circle City
INDIANAPOLIS – David Leander Williams is a Hoosier native and scholar who has now made it his mission to inspire young people.
Williams collected the stories of remarkable African Americans whose stories have yet to be celebrated as they should be for his new book, African American in Indianapolis.
The project was inspired by a conversation and an experience he had with his niece.
“Uncle D, I have a project. I have to write about outstanding African American people or events in the 20th century,” she said.
The two went to the Central Library in search of books that told the history of African Americans in Indianapolis. Williams says there was hardly anything.
“I got angry and said someone should do something about it,” Williams said. “I had to do it.”
The book tells the stories of Polly Strong and Mary Bateman Clark, two slaves in the Territory who fought for their freedom.
It also talks about the founding of the Bethel AME Church, which provided refuge and spiritual support to escaped slaves and freed blacks who ventured north.
Williams is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School. A man named David Curtis Stephenson, who would later become a prominent figure in the Ku Klux Klan, persuaded city leaders to create a high school specifically for African Americans.
Stephenson wanted to create a high school that was doomed – but Dr. Mathias Norcock, the first director, did not allow that.
“He could travel across the country [and] Hire the country’s most outstanding scholars. Many had masters or PhD degrees but couldn’t teach in white high schools or colleges because of racism,” Williams said. “He brought college professors into the high school, so our education wasn’t inferior. It was superior.”
Williams would like to highlight the key players in our city’s history—such as those who founded and cultivated the area that became Indianapolis’ black cultural epicenter in the 1920’s—Indiana Avenue.
He hopes the story can be a healer.
“I hope that my book will encourage Generations X and Z to know that they come from a people who worked hard, who were honorable, who helped and loved one another,” he said. “I want them to go back to the time when we loved each other and couldn’t fight each other. So if I could pull this off, I think my humble effort would be fantastic.”
The book was published by Indiana University.
Williams is now working on his next project, which will focus on the contributions of influential African American women around the turn of the century. It is expected to be released in 2024.