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Norwood maintains legacy laid by freedmen, Black Civil War veterans who founded it

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The legacy of Indiana’s first Freetown founded by Black Civil War veterans, Norwood remains intact as a testament to its founders’ tenacity.

Black Civil War veterans and freedmen founded Norwood in the 1860s, carving out a safe haven in the city that neighbored Fountain Square, and the area remained a self-maintaining town into the 1970s.

Today, descendants remain and share their history, holding onto its legacy.

Freedmen were the first to walk the streets of Norwood; the legacy of it remains rooted deep into the foundation.

Flinora Frazier, 93, knows. Her grandfather Sidney Penick was one of them. “He was in the war. I heard my grandmother talk about that.”

Penick joined the Civil War to help free his mother from slavery, and he eventually moved to Norwood and founded its first church, Penick Chapel AME Zion Church.

Frazier said, “It’s hard to imagine. We didn’t have much, but we were happy.”

Back then, Frazier says, as a self-maintaining town, people came to rely on their neighbors for maintenance, guidance, food and family. “Family. Every house was a part of your family even though they’re not really kin, but that was the attitude.”

She’s one of the early puzzle pieces holding it all together, sharing what she knows.

Brenda McAtee, president of the Norwood Neighborhood Association, said, “Flinora Fraizer gave me all of the documents. It’s more than that, but she gave me this,” a binder of newspaper clippings and documents.

McAtee moved to the area in 1969, just before the town merged with the Indianapolis city government. In 1970, the community welcomed paved streets and sidewalks.

“We have had our turn and thank God for keeping us here, but we want to let the kids know this like we’re doing with this old history, way back when. We want them to know coming forward how all of this happened.”

McAtee had been a voice of advocacy for the community since then. “I love what I’m doing. I love the neighborhood.”

She and others are spearheading improvement efforts alongside city leaders to maintain the neighborhood’s historical integrity and build it up for the current generation. “We need to go forward, not backward, and that is what we’re doing. We’re going forward to improve the neighborhood, to make it a neighborhood where people can come and feel comfortable.”

McAtee has been working alongside the Department of Metropolitan Development, and the work it is doing to support the community. Lourenzo Giple is deputy director of planning preservation and urban design.

The histories of Black and brown communities, Giple says, didn’t get the attention it deserves, but those stories are an important part of the fabric of Indianapolis. Giple applauds the tenacity of the Norwood communities and others that grew despite the challenges of the day.

“Essentially saying, ‘Well, you don’t want us. We’re going to take care of ourselves.’ But as the city grew, the resources became very very limited,” Giple said, “and it came to a point where ‘You need access to us and we need access to you.'”

Working closely with McAtee and others, the city has worked to expand protections through historical designations to limit what people can do in terms of demolition while also supporting affordable housing options, which has been a major concern as nearby Fountain Square sees growing displacement and gentrification.

“Our No. 1 goal is to protect the community. That’s the No. 1 thing the community has asked for.”

McAtee says the community has always been the focus. So, the decisions that are made are made together. She’s hopeful to see what’s next.

As for Frazier, she knows the history and can be their guide. “Well, if you don’t know where you came from, you might repeat it.”

The neighborhood is going through the motions to establish a new community center to provide more resources and recreation for the community.

McAtee says she also hopes to get historical markers at the four entrances to the community.