THE HACKLEY REPORT
By Eric Donald Hackley
Eric Hackley: What originally gave you the idea to start an African American Museum?
Hanna Stith: In 1975 when Fort Wayne began to celebrate America’s bicentennial, there were no blacks involved in the actual planning of the 1976 celebration, America’s 200th anniversary. Gail Grier, who was CEO of the Urban League at that time, contacted me and Miles Edwards because we were both educators and natives of Fort Wayne. She asked us if we were interested in working with the committee to help provide activities for African American people in this celebration. That is how I became interested in Fort Wayne black history.
I was born here and there have been blacks here ever since I can remember. I went to the library and they had very little information on African American people. They had a folder that had a few clippings like, Marjorie Wickliffe had written a history of Fort Wayne with no dates and it was mostly about her family. The other clippings were incidental, of no major importance concerning history. Then I went to the History Center, which was the Fort Wayne Museum at that time, and they had four pictures of black people. I was so elated when I saw those four pictures. They had been taken in 1936 and I knew a lot of people on those pictures. That increased my interest in the black history of Fort Wayne. Those pictures had been taken by the Red Feather Agency at the Wheatley Center, which was a recreational center for blacks in the 1920s. I became interested in documenting our history up to this time. It hadn’t really been done.
I started out interviewing six elderly people and I turned those tapes over to the Allen County Museum. I took pictures and for the first time ever, we were able to have an exhibit of black people at the Allen County Museum. When I interviewed those six people, the thing that was most difficult was in remembering dates. People could tell you what happened, but they found it difficult to accurately come up with the dates of when it happened. But it was very interesting to research, put dates on places and names on people. I began working on this project in 1975 and I’m still working on it presently, almost 40 years. This was the beginning of my interest in being involved in black history in Fort Wayne.
EH: You mentioned 1976, didn’t you and your husband Harold have the first Juneteenth Parade that year?
Yes we did. We had the largest celebration that has ever been held in Fort Wayne. I imagine about 10,000 people attended. We had the celebration in Memorial Park and it lasted all day. We had a parade and I had asked Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, to lead it but at the last moment he was not able to honor the engagement. Fort Wayne Mayor Robert Armstrong led our parade. We paraded from the Lincoln Life parking lot on Calhoun Street to Memorial Park. I have pictures of it. The parade was fabulous. It was the largest black parade ever. I have been collecting and savings things about black people all of these years. I stored them in my husband’s warehouses and my basement. I had many things, which enabled me to do traveling exhibits like in Headwaters Park, Old Fort YMCA, and the City-County building. All this was actually the beginning of the birth of the first African American Museum in Fort Wayne.
There was a lady named Ann Fairchild who worked for the History Center in the 1990s. She was over the education department. Ann thought there should be more involvement of African American people at the museum. We were involved with the downtown museum for many, many years. We worked out of the museum and did projects that were sponsored out of the museum.
Ann thought there should be an African American Society and it was through her initiative that we called blacks together and organized and formed what was known as the African/African Historical American Society Museum. The reason it is called African/African is because there are Africans who are Africans, not mixed with anything. They’re pure African. We have slash African Americans and we’re mixed with everything. That’s why we have the title, African/African American Historical Society. Out of the birth of the society, eventually it was decided that we needed a museum. Will Clark and Ann Fairchild were very instrumental in helping in the organization of this project. Also there was Mary Ray and Miles Edwards who were educators, Carol Cartwright and a few others along with myself are the founders of the African/African American Historical Society. The museum came into being on Feb. 1, 2000.
In the beginning, this was something new. It caught the eye and attention of the people who were interested in it. We had fundraisers and gatherings and big dinners. People donated food, We began by informing people of what our intentions were. We had quite a following at that time. What made it so interesting was that our following was not all African American people. We had a sizeable amount of other people and through the early stages, our effort was highly integrated. There was enough interest and we felt that we could make it a successful museum. We told people this was necessary because we do have a History Center. But, there is not enough room. They would give us a small space for an exhibit. But, we were limited and had to get approval for space and what kind of exhibit we could present. Being that everything was so limited, we decided that we needed our own museum and the interest was there.
EH: What was the Black Church involvement in this initiative?
None. The church was not instrumental and they did not have great involvement. As far as community issues are concerned there is interest and cooperation among the churches. But in other areas, there is no cooperation among the Black Church. They had little involvement in the beginning of the museum. Turner Chapel is where we were allowed to have our first gathering and dinners, free of charge. I am a member of that church.
I had an exhibit on the African American Churches of Fort Wayne. We took a survey in the year 2000 of the 105 black churches. I was the photographer. I had taken pictures of all the churches and had a little bit of history on each of them. Some of the ministers sent me their histories. The churches did not cooperate when I had this huge exhibit of African American churches, but I did have them all in our main exhibit. The churches and museum would have both greatly benefited by greater involvement from the churches.
I was born in Fort Wayne in 1928. There were very few black people here. During my early childhood years, there were under 1000 black people in Fort Wayne. In 1918 a lot of blacks were recruited to come to Fort Wayne to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bass Foundry sent representatives south to recruit blacks to come and work. International Harvester brought blacks to Fort Wayne from Ohio to do janitorial work. It was not until the 1940s that blacks were allowed to work on machines at Harvester. The beginning blacks worked for 26 cents per hour.
It was in the 1940s that blacks came to Fort Wayne in mass. President FDR passed a Fair Employment Law on June 25, 1941. World War II was beginning and factories were beginning to open and FDR said, “any factories making ammunition and products for the government,” had to hire black people. Because of that, the population of blacks in Fort Wayne more than doubled. In the 1940s, we had 2500 blacks. Most of the people came from Alabama. From the 1940s to 1960, we had over 5000. In the 1990s, the population of Blacks doubled again to over 14,000 and I’ve traced the roots, they’re mostly from Alabama.
Eric Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing on family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons. Hackley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4 print edition.