Black-named Town Preserves History

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on November 12, 2000

People in Lyles Station are pulling together to preserve a dilapidated school that stands as a symbol of enduring hopeand prideto this tiny farming community in southwest Indiana.

Plans are under way to restore Lyles Consolidated School, built in 1919 and closed in 1958, to commemorate its contributions to the community and to honor the people who settled the towna haven for freed and escaped slavesin the 1800s.

“They were hard workers, interested in educating their children and making a better life for themselves, and they succeeded,” says Carl C. Lyles, 88, the great-grandson of Joshua Lyles, for whom the town was named in 1886.

Carl Lyles, a retired educator who lives in Evansville, Ind., grew up hearing tales of courage and triumph that make up the town’s unique history. The stories included recollections of such prominent townspeople as William Roundtree, the first black postmaster north of the Mason-Dixon Line; Mathias Nolcox, founder of an African-American high school in Indianapolis; Lyman Parks, a former mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Alonzo Fields, the chief White House butler during four administrations.

It’s an impressive list, considering that the population of Lyles Station around the turn of the 20th century was about 600. Today, about 50 families live within a two-mile radius of Lyles Station, which consists of a few homes, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a grain elevator, and the boarded-up schoolhouse. Some residents still till the soil, others work in nearby towns, and nearly half are descendants of the original black settlers.

“There used to be more people, but things haven’t changed much,” says Lois Hardiman, 83, a lifelong resident. “People are friendly. We’ve never had a disturbance. I don’t think you could live in a better place.”

Hardiman, whose white clapboard house stands across the road from the schoolhouse, is delighted the community is coming together to give the old building a new beginning.

Each September for the last three years, the community has hosted a “New Beginnings” celebration to raise money and awareness for the project. This year’s event, which featured live entertainment and a barbecue on the schoolhouse grounds, drew about 600 people and raised $5,000.

So far, $100,000 in pledges and donations has been collected through individual and corporate gifts toward the $1 million needed to restore the school. State and federal grants also are being sought with the help of members of Indiana’s congressional delegation. The money will be used to convert the school into a community museum and re-enactment classroom where students from surrounding schools can experience education as it was practiced a century ago.

“It’s a way to preserve the legacy of Lyles Station,” says Mary Madison, 40, a first-grade teacher in nearby Princeton and one of the project’s coordinators. “There are so many children who have no idea that a black-named settlement still exists in Indiana, and this will be a way for them to learn about black heritage.”

As one of the last buildings standing in Indiana’s only remaining community settled by African-Americans, the school has great historic significance, says Anne Gryczon of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, an organization helping with renovation efforts.

Loretta Freeman, 84, who taught at the three-room school for 14 years, says she’s proud the town is rallying around the school, because the people of Lyles Station always have put an emphasis on education.

“My mother always said, ‘education is the ladder out of poverty,'” Freeman adds.