TERRE HAUTE —
Well-meaning parents try to instill strong character in their kids.
“Don’t be afraid to stand up for your beliefs,” moms and dads will insist, “even if you stand alone.”
James Sidney Hinton experienced such a moment on Jan. 6, 1881.
On that day, Hinton took his seat as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives, the only black man among them. This former Vigo County student, barber and teacher was the first African-American to serve in the Hoosier Legislature.
Someday in the near future, 21st-century Indiana legislators may sense his presence daily as they walk past a sculpture of Hinton on the main floor of the Statehouse. Nearly six years after an unfunded General Assembly mandate, a North Carolina artist has been commissioned by the Indiana Historical Bureau, the Indiana Arts Commission, and the state Department of Administration to create bronze busts of two influential African-American legislators — congresswoman Julia Carson and Hinton. Ten days ago, the agencies chose sculptor Jon Hair of Cornelius, N.C., for the project.
Hair will base his work on the only known photograph of Hinton. Despite its rarity, the picture reveals something to the artist.
The image shows Hinton sporting a mustache, hair swept back, and sharply dressed — tweed jacket, white shirt, bow tie. His expression, though, is stoic, eyes fixed beyond the photographer.
“I can just imagine what James Hinton went through, just by looking at his face,” Hair said in a telephone interview.
John Gregg tried to envision Hinton’s circumstances. In an essay written last year, Gregg — the former Indiana House Speaker — recalled his own first day as a state representative in 1986, more than a century after Hinton’s debut. Gregg remembered being energized, yet “a little intimidated and scared. But make no mistake: when James Hinton walked into the Statehouse as the first black legislator in Indiana history, it was as daunting a task as any Hoosier faced.”
Less than 16 years after the Civil War, Hinton likely was treated by his colleagues as “a second-class citizen,” Gregg figured, despite the fact that Indiana stood with the Union to defeat slavery. “He could rise to address the General Assembly on the issues of the day and cast his vote like anyone else, Gregg wrote, “but probably had to eat, sleep, shop and live separately. He was alone in the Statehouse. Yet, he persevered.”
On the upcoming Martin Luther King national holiday, the community James Hinton once called home should — like the state capitol in Indianapolis — consider ways to permanently commemorate his perseverance. Hinton deserves it, even if historical accounts cite no dramatic achievements by Hinton in his single two-year term as a state representative. Soliciting support and compromise for a piece of legislation is difficult for any lawmaker in today’s polarized political atmosphere, but succeeding at such give-and-take would be an impossibly uphill battle for a lone black state rep in the 1880s.
The fact that Hinton summoned the courage to run, get elected and serve merits recognition on its own.
“Those of us today don’t really have a good idea of the segregation between blacks and whites” in that era, said Dani Pfaff, senior historian for research at the Indiana Historical Bureau.
Despite the time and place — 1834 in the Southern state of North Carolina — Hinton was born to free black parents, John and Hannah Hinton, on Christmas Day. Hinton’s father wanted to relocate the family to a place where his son could get a strong education. Given John’s unique skill as a master maker of skylights, the Hintons could choose almost any town, explained Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick. He chose the subscription school at Allen Chapel African Methodist Church in Terre Haute, where the “Underground Railroad” — a network of safe havens for escaping Southern slaves — and the sympathetic Quaker communities functioned.
Hinton later studied at a Quaker school in Hartford, near Pimento, in southern Vigo County, left for college at Greenville, Ohio, and eventually returned to Terre Haute. He sold wares on a wagon, barbered, taught school, and then sought to serve in the Union Army. First rejected because of his race and then because of his poor eyesight, Hinton eventually became a Union recruiter in Indiana and Massachusetts. Following the war, the Republican “Party of Lincoln” enlisted Hinton to recruit freed black men in Tennessee to use their newly won right to vote.
It could be argued that white politicians used African-Americans, such as Hinton, to preserve their party power. Hinton may have sensed a breakthrough opportunity for African-Americans was within reach, regardless of the motives.
Whatever the case, in the wake of his work for the party, Hinton earned the Republican nomination for state rep in 1880, won and served.
Hinton chose not to seek public office again after his term ended. After the Republicans gained momentum in the Reconstruction period, including Hinton’s electoral victory, the “party went down to defeat before a Democratic upsurge” in 1882, according to the book, “Indiana’s Representative Men in 1881.”
Hinton remained an active leader and speaker on behalf of African-American issues and rights and of his Republican Party. He had a flair for that role, as a “spectacular orator,” Pfaff said. In fact, Hinton died in 1892 while delivering a speech in Brazil, McCormick said. Some of his most memorable quotations came in an address at Woods Hill in Vigo County on the nation’s centennial — July 4, 1876. Hinton envisioned equality on the horizon. Just 11 years removed from the Civil War, Hinton nonetheless sounded validated and confident that positive change was imminent.
Of course, as the coming decades proved, change came in slow, painful, tumultuous steps.
But on that day of national celebration in 1876, Hinton was hopeful.
“Let us be consistent in all of our actions, asking nothing for ourselves which we are not willing to yield to others,” he told the Vigo County crowd, according to archive material provided by the Indiana Historical Bureau.
“The laws of the country are being so shaped that there shall be no remembrance of his former bondage,” Hinton said in that same speech, referring to slavery. “The forces of truth and the principles of liberty, born in the days of the revolution and proclaimed in the Declaration of 1776, have placed the Negro for the first time in history on this continent in a position to realize that he is a man and an American citizen.”
Four years later, James Sidney Hinton proved it by walking into the Statehouse and taking his oath of office.
Let’s remember the guts it took for him to do that.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.