The sun is just dawning over a parking lot wedged between a cornfield and a Bob Evans in southwestern Indiana. The farmers arrive early. This is like sleeping in for them. The prospect of this pilgrimage to Washington makes them proud, nostalgic and a little edgy.
“It’s a busy time to be going,” says Glenn Morris, who raises cattle and crops on 425 acres a couple miles away. “You’re wondering if you should be on the trip or in the field.”
Morris, 78, climbs aboard an idling 56-seat tour bus and takes a place in the second row next to his wife, Julia. Destination: the ribbon-cutting of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 730 miles away. The passengers are all connected by blood or enthusiasm to a soon-to-be famous country crossroads called Lyles Station.
Of all the stories the Smithsonian curators have chosen to tell, theirs is one of the more surprising. Certain familiar themes of the African American story — slavery, Jim Crow, urban migration, civil disobedience — are present, but at the margins. What makes Lyles Station exceptional, in part, is that it was a haven of free blacks who were able to buy land and build their own farms before the Civil War. A century and a half later, that legacy has survived through the dogged sunup, sundown dedication and faith of generations of farming men and women like Morris. It’s a missing piece of American history that scholars only recently have begun to uncover. An intimate exhibit on life in Lyles Station — farm tools, personal belongings, even a Ball jar full of soil — introduces this community to the world.
“We weren’t wrote about or talked about, but we were involved in the process of building the country,” says Stanley Madison, 66, a farmer and historian of Lyles Station. “We don’t want a medal. We don’t want somebody to give us a catered dinner. We just want to be part of this thing called the United States of America, the freedom country. We just want to be able to share with people to say: This is who we are, and this is how we got here.”
But where they’re going as a community is a question. Nowadays, after so much striving, Lyles Station clings to an existence somewhere between history and oblivion, protagonist and museum piece.
In a sense, this bus trip is a journey through the past in the hope of finding the future. A jar of soil is a fitting symbol of Lyles Station now — but in a generation or two, who will own this dream-soaked land?
Several of the bus passengers attended the “scanning party” the Smithsonian curators held in Lyles Station to make digital copies of family photographs. Residents combed old albums and crumpled cardboard boxes and brought hundreds to be considered.
They also donated a couple dozen objects going back to the 19th century — farm equipment, personal keepsakes, church artifacts.
Yet even during a 15-hour bus trip, they can’t quite imagine how the objects will be used in the museum. In fact, they can’t envision what an entire museum of African American history will be like. The one thing they know is that familiar parts of their lives will be on display for the world to see.
“When we get to Washington, the American people will know that we have built a farming community that has helped feed the United States,” Madison says.
It began with another trek, 200 years ago. Charles Grier was born a slave in Virginia in 1782. His owner freed him, and he lit out for the territories, reaching what would become Indiana in 1816. It was the frontier — wild but free. The young republic had declared that slavery would be prohibited in the states carved out of this “northwest territory,” now known as the Midwest.
“It’s really important to talk about African American pioneers and how they were involved in the settling of our first free frontier,” says Anna-Lisa Cox, a fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, whose work informs the Smithsonian exhibit.
Lyles Station, named after the Lyles family, is one of the last of dozens of free black settlements where some of the same land is being farmed by descendants of the pioneers.
“This is the story of claiming one’s own land, claiming one’s own identity at a time when land really means power,” says Paul Gardullo, the Smithsonian curator responsible for the Lyles Station exhibit. “Political power, social capital, economic capital, during a period when half the country’s enslaved. Presenting it to the public, I think, is going to be eye-opening.”
The bus is like a vessel containing stories hurtling across Kentucky and West Virginia, and through time.
“I’m going to post a lot of the journey,” says Yolonda Bostic, 50, firing up her Facebook page in the front row beside her mother, Joyce Gooch Granger, 71. “I feel so blessed to be living through the lens of my forefathers and my mom.”
The stories being told on the bus are about old-fashioned values instilled by elders, about uphill struggles. Universal stories, in other words. But to be on the bus is to be working through what exactly makes your life universal. What makes it special enough to be in a museum?
“From a humble beginning, the people struggled, especially the farmers, they struggled through segregation and floods, and everything seemed to be against them,” says Donnie Morris, 77, Glenn’s brother. “But the people didn’t give up.”
Half a mile down a one-lane road in Lyles Station, edged by a flood-control ditch, is special ground. This very patch, first owned by Willis Greer in 1855, supplied the soil for the museum exhibit, so chosen because it’s the field that has been continuously farmed by the same family for the longest time.
Life has moved on in so many ways for America, its people and its producers. Fewer farmers are needed; better futures beckon elsewhere.
“I’m the last one to be farming it that’s in the family,” says Norman Greer, 79, great-grandson of Willis. He stands straight and lean in blue overalls. “It’s just about run its course. It’s about the end of owning land. After I’m gone, what’s going to happen?”
Non-farming descendants can make arrangements to rent, rather than sell, ancestral holdings, though money is easier to split than land.
“As long as it’s within my power we will always have the property and the land,” says Denise Greer Jamerson, 50, one of Greer’s five daughters who grew up on the farm.
She says she didn’t realize the significance of Lyles Station — it was just her life — until her husband, John Jamerson, told her how his mother used to drive him as a boy from where he grew up an hour away just to witness something incredible in farm country: “A black community run by blacks.”
In the late 1990s, Madison led an effort to begin to save Lyles Station’s past, and the community raised $1 million to restore the schoolhouse. But scarcely a dozen of the early families reside on the land today, and fewer than that are farming.
Not long after the bus crosses the Ohio River, Lenora Cole, 77, tells about the time when her father, Wayman Stewart, then a teenager, was on the back of a wagon hauling a plow, while her grandfather managed the horses in front. A train hit the rig.
“At the age of 13, my dad became the man of the house, and quite a frugal man,” Cole says. He grew into one of Lyles Station’s respected farmers, but outside the community, “it was always: Wayman Stewart is a good ‘black farmer,’ which he was; not, Wayman Stewart is a good farmer, which he also was.”
Generally, the old-timers have an indirect way of talking about race.
“If you were reared, you knew your boundaries,” says Dewight “Cap” Greer, 81, a cousin of Norman’s.
“You knew how far to go, let’s put it like that,” Morris says.
“I mean, a black man couldn’t jump up and rent the ground like a white man could,” he says.
Once, Morris had been farming a patch of rented ground for a number of years, spending extra effort to clear it and improve it. The owner died, and the new owner took it from Morris and rented it to a white farmer who appeared out of nowhere.
“You may be a lot better farmer than they was, but that didn’t make a difference,” Morris says. “The bitter taste stays there for a long time after you done all that work.”
That’s how the undertow of race made itself known, through economic slights, unequal access to capital, compounded over generations. The black-owned farms remained comparably small, with some exceptions.
“We got the mudholes, they got the good land,” Norman Greer says. He adds: “I never borrowed a damn penny in this town [neighboring Princeton], because they wouldn’t let me have it.”
Even after the schools integrated, the children of black farmers couldn’t join their friends at the local candy store and soda fountain. Mondays were the only nights when black kids could go to the local roller skating rink. Well into the 1960s, the local movie palace, the Princeton Theatre, maintained a separate entrance for African Americans, who were relegated to a section of the balcony under careful watch by theater management.
There was little marching or protesting that anyone can remember. The concentration of African Americans was but a drop in nearly all-white Gibson County, and remains so.
The rage and resistance seemed far away. “I never paid attention to none of that,” Morris says. “I was always busy.”
But a few of the leading Lyles Station citizens did chip in money to hire a lawyer to pressure the theater to end its audience segregation.
In Lyles Station, a different kind of black power was being practiced.
To kill time on the bus, they watch a documentary about Indianapolis in the 1950s, in which the black side of life is represented by a few strategically placed talking heads in a parade of white. This puts everyone to sleep.
The morning of the ribbon-
cutting, Josiah Wilkerson, 11, starts taking pictures with his tablet on the bridge over the Potomac. He’s the youngest person on the bus, traveling with his grandparents and great-aunt on their first trip to Washington.
“This is a chance for him to see what his ancestors and the black race contributed,” says James Wilkerson Sr., 63, Josiah’s grandfather. “The history books don’t teach you that several races built this country.”
On the National Mall, the Wilkersons take up a position facing a big screen. When President Obama speaks, he underlines the grandfather’s lesson that African American history is American history:
“But too often, we ignored or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely, whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands, whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect industries, build the arsenals of democracy.”
Not to mention those whose calloused hands helped clear the land and feed the nation.
Meanwhile, back in Princeton, in proud appreciation of the local connection to African American history, the new management of that theater where the segregated balcony used to be is live-streaming the opening ceremony.
At first, they are overwhelmed, speechless. The bus riders have come straight to the Lyles Station exhibit on the third floor on Sunday.
“The spirits are here in this room, the ancestors, you can feel them,” Madison says.
They begin to focus on the details — all the family photos, the farm equipment, the baby dolls, a church pulpit, a quilt. There’s the 19th-century plow that Madison rescued from a ruined barn 46 years ago; only now does he understand why it mattered.
Morris squints and asks, “Where’s the ground — that little jar over there?” He moves in for a closer look at the soil from the old Greer place. It has been heat-treated and dried to live in vacuumed perpetuity. “It’s good ground.”
The objects and the images seem to exhale stories they know in their bones.
Bostic continues the Facebook journal of the journey that she began in the first hour on the bus. She aims her phone at a vintage photo — now certified museum-quality — and narrates into the microphone: “My mom in the field as a little girl, on the melon wagon with no shirt on and her back turned.”
Other visitors to the museum begin to realize that they are in the presence of the living community that’s portrayed in the exhibit. They want pictures; they have questions.
“Do you live on the land?” a woman asks Morris, posing him in front of the display.
“I’m the fourth generation,” he says.
Here, then, is how Lyles Station might begin anew: as a legend, and a place of teaching. Now the museum’s rich intersection of story lines comes into focus. Nearby are exhibits of other powerful places — the Bronx at the birth of hip-hop; Chicago and the Great Migration; Greenville, Miss., and the era of racist terror.
“It’s an amazing feeling to see all of the many fabrics of African American history in this museum and to be a small part of it,” Bostic says. “I feel very accepted today.”