Samuel Plato and the African-American Hoosier experience in the 1800s

Whether it is from period re-enactments at the Indiana Historical Society or at historical homes such as the Levi Coffin house, I have been exposed to worlds different from my own in time and culture. The worlds that others opened up to me were not covered at school or in the mainstream American culture (= white European).

My latest foray into this world was a special all-day event hosted by the Indiana Landmarks Center: a celebration of Samuel Plato and his work.

The day started with lectures that provided context for Samuel Plato—the history of African-Americans in Indiana from the time Indiana was a territory to the time of Plato (born 1882), the history of African-Americans in Grant County, and finally Plato’s life.

To my delight, all of this was preceded by discussions I had with the woman sitting next to me: an expert in African-American experiences from 1619 to 1723 who previously worked at the Smithsonian. I learned and relearned fascinating tidbits from her.

The first African-Americans in the US arrived in Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants, but quickly, indentured servitude moved to permanent slavery. The first slave owner in the US was a former indentured servant, a black man. Virginia wasn’t initially the big slave state; that distinction belongs to the Carolinas. British common law, which stated that a child’s status was derived from the father, was quickly replaced by partus sequitur ventrem; a child born of a slave woman with a white man was a slave. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 led to laws prohibiting the socialization of whites and blacks who often shared the same socio-economic concerns.

Then the lectures officially started.

The speakers did an outstanding job: Wilma Moore from the Indiana Historical Society; William Munn, a Grand County Historian (and retired schoolteacher); and Sharon Wilson, a historian at the Wilson-Vaughn House (a mansion designed and built by Plato that kicked off his national architectural career).

I can’t do justice to the wealth of knowledge I learned about early African-American experiences in the US and in Indiana in particular. I did get a fascinating look into the 1800s, which added to my paltry knowledge of African-American history of that time period.

Wilma Moore and William Munn spoke of attempts at circumventing the no-slavery clause of the Indiana Constitution, visits by Frederick Douglas to Indiana, the prevalence of African-American settlements in Indiana, the work of Quakers and Presbyterians, and how forces in the 1920s helped destroy the African-American middle class and led to the breakdown of community.

From Sharon Wilson, I learned that Plato came to Muncie from Alabama in 1902. At that time, Muncie was one several small Midwestern towns that offered a chance for African-American men to work, to safely send their children to school, and to buy homes.

Early on, Plato faced discrimination in the form of being dismissed from a work team because the white workers refused to work with him. Quickly he was on to different projects and his reputation grew. The same white workers who refused to work with him ended up working for him, but not until Plato had exacted concessions: his work teams welcomed white workers as long as their unions embraced African-American workers as members.

Plato designed numerous buildings and homes in Marion with the financial backing of the man whose mansion (the Wilson-Vaughn House) he designed and built in 1912. His work on this mansion helped springboard his reputation and career as an architect throughout the US. Decades later, Plato was still acknowledging Wilson’s contribution to his success.

In the early ’20s, he left Marion to live and work in Louisville, building many structures there and throughout the country: churches, post offices (38 of them), houses, banks, schools, defense housing. All the while he sought to help others around him: “My whole goal in life has been to improve and help others who come up behind me.” What an awesome way to live one’s life.

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