By Roberta F. Ridley
Special to Frost Illustrated from the African American Genealogical Society of Fort Wayne
While studying Indiana history as a child I often wondered if there were any “Negroes” in Indiana before the enslaved were freed.
School taught me that President George Washington, General Marquis de Lafayette and General Anthony Wayne (among others) should be respected heroes of my community. They never told me about any African Americans whom I should hold in the same regard. So as I flowed through the Fort Wayne Community school system and then the Lutheran school system with no information given about the heroes who would encourage me, I began to search for the answers to those questions and many more. Long story short, I discovered writings that informed me of both enslaved and free people of color in the Indiana Territory (1800), in the state (1816), and in “Fort” Wayne, founded in 1794, and the town, which was incorporated in 1829.
I discovered an African servant to General Lafayette and people like Burrel Reed who purchased land in Fort Wayne on Aug. 1, 1837. Mr. Reed was identified as a bootblack (had a shoe shine stand), town crier (a town officer who makes proclamations) and factotum (jack of all trades). There was also a notable gentleman by the name of J.H. Cousins who was the locally appointed town crier in 1852. All of these gentlemen require much more research to secure their life stories into the history books of Allen County.
My research also offered pioneer resident Mr. Henry Cannady (Canada, Canaday, Canady, Kennedy—various spellings). Henry Canady was one of the original trustees in establishing of the Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church here in Fort Wayne in the year 1849. Several articles throughout the years have been written about the church and its rich history in our community, but little has been written or shared about the families who started the church and congregation.
History advises that Willis W. Elliot, Henry H. Canada and George W. Fisher purchased land for the church at a public auction in 1849 with Pastor George Nelson Black as the first pastor of the congregation (also an active abolitionist). All of these gentlemen were considered young men at the time of this transaction and successful businessmen as well. “Elliot, a thirty-eight year-old native of North Carolina, owned two barber shops in town” and the 1850 census shows his real estate valued at $2,000; “Fisher was a twenty-four year-old lather from Ohio” and the 1850 census shows his real estate valued at $400; and Cannady was a plasterer (name spelling shown as Kennedy in the 1850 census) and real estate value was listed at $500. What an exciting collection of information!
How uplifting to find within our African American culture’s history that there were men owning property and land here in Fort Wayne prior to 1850. These men were so motivated in the community that they found a way to offer opportunity to other African Americans migrating to the area and felt that the church would be the answer. From these individuals, the Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church was born. Can you imagine being a descendant of one of these gentlemen and researching back to the time that you discover a historic moment such as this and the church is still in the same community?
Some of the most respected genealogists (such as author Alex Haley and Tony Burrroughs) of the 20th and 21st centuries have visited, researched or presented at the Allen County Public Library. The absolute rich collection beckons researchers from around the world. Now we are so fortunate to introduce to you, in program, Attorney Roma J. Stewart, a direct descendant of Henry Canady, an original trustee of Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church, Fort Wayne’s oldest African American Church.
Roma Stewart was born in Chicago and attended Hyde Park High School. A graduate of Fisk University and Georgetown University Law School, she practices law in state and federal courts in Chicago. She has been seriously studying her own family history since the publication of “Roots,” and has traced her Cannady and Bunn lines through Allen County, Ind. back to Virginia in the mid-1700s, as well as her Allen and Wade lines to the mid-1700s in North Carolina. In 1985 she joined the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago, and served as its president from 1989 to 1991. Roma is the author of “The Migration of a Free People: Cass County’s Black Settlers from North Carolina,” Michigan History, 1987, and “Research in Progress: Free Blacks in Antebellum America,” Origins, 1987. She has published Liberia Genealogical Research, 1991, Africans in Georgia: 1870, 1993, and The Family of Bunn: Americans in Black and White, 2008. She is a member of the First Families of Allen County/Ft. Wayne Indiana and of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Please join the African American Genealogical Society of Fort Wayne in welcoming and sharing an evening with one of our own Fort Wayne African American First Family members. Roma will share her research methods and discoveries in an effort to encourage and aid in your genealogy challenges. We will gather at: Allen County Public Library, 900 Library Plaza, Fort Wayne, with a reception from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday March 14, with the program and Q&A to follow. Society members are admitted free; admission for non-member is $7.
We encourage you to attend and get started on your genealogy cold case story. For questions about the AAGSFW please call (260) 247-0789, (260) 804-7011, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us on Facebook. Support the Allen County African History on March 14.