Celebrating Black History

Harrison Presidential Site exhibit highlights civil rights in the 1800s

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The concept of civil rights came along well before the 1960s.

In the 1800s Black people, with the help of former President Benjamin Harrison, helped lead the charge to end lynching in the South and push for voting rights.

In the late 19th century, the lynching of Black people was rampant. Harrison, a U.S. senator from Indiana before he became president, denounced the act. During his tenure as president, he helped put things in motion to create change. That story is coming to light in a new exhibit at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site: No “Compact of Silence: Black Civil Rights Advocates in the Harrison Era.”

Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Blache Bruce are some of the notable faces and names in the civil rights movement.

“I feel like these advocates set the framework for the 1960s civil rights act. And it’s just really exciting to see some of the things that they were doing and having their feet on the ground doing all of the work,” Whitney Ball, the site’s special events marketing manager, said.

The exhibit has been designed in partnership with IUPUI museum studies program.

“We love educating, and that is one of our biggest things, to teach people about President Harrison, but also teach about the legacy that he left behind, and that others left behind,” Ball said.

It highlights national and local Black civil rights activists while looking at race in 19th century America, focusing on lynching and Black voter suppression.

“We have advocates from Kokomo, and just realizing that people in your city, your state, were doing things early, early on before anyone knew,” Ball said.

Harrison took a rare stand for the time, explicitly calling out the atrocity of Lynching, advocating for black rights and equality, and even challenging other norms of the time.

“Dolly Johnson was hired by President Harrison to be his executive chef after he fired his French chef,” Ball said. “She was in the White House working for several different administration; she was a freed slave.”

The Harrison House is a historical site and representatives say they want it to be more than a marker. They hope it acts as a place to learn and share history.

Although the exhibit is open just in time for Black History Month, it’ll will be on display through November.