The Women Behind Court Cases That Helped Ended Slavery in Indiana
Juneteenth marks the date in 1865 that United States troops arrived in Texas and Major General Gordon Granger read an order enforcing the emancipation of enslaved Black men and women. Originally celebrated in Galveston, the commemoration spread to cities nationwide and became a federal holiday in 2021.
Many people think that Black people were always “free” in Indiana—a Northern state. But the truth is more complicated. Consider the stories of Mary Bateman Clark and Polly Strong.
A Short Recap of 19th-Century Indiana
During the 1800s, Indiana was not the state we know today, but part of one large territory that covered most of the Midwest. The laws in this territory dictated that slavery was illegal unless there were pre-existing enslaved people in the region; no one could be brought to or sold in the Indiana territories. When Indiana became a state in 1816, the Constitution outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude.
Unfortunately, this did not mean freedom for all enslaved in Indiana; wealthy White politicians, including the elected governor, worked around the new Indiana Constitution. When attempts to repeal the law didn’t work, advocates for chattel slavery found workarounds like calling it “indentured servitude.” Formerly enslaved people could face the “choice” of signing a lifelong work contract for little to no pay or being sold back into slavery in the South.
It All Began with Polly Strong
Polly Strong was an enslaved woman living in Vincennes, Indiana, one of the state’s oldest cities. During the year 1820, she began working with lawyer and abolitionist Amory Kinney. Because of the Indiana Constitution that outlawed slavery and indentured servitude, Strong wanted to pursue her freedom. With the aid of Kinney, she took her case to court. During the first court proceeding, the Knox County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the man who purchased Strong, leaving her enslaved.
Kinney immediately appealed the case and took it to the Indiana Supreme Court. The court justices ruled in favor of Strong, citing the Indiana constitution “Slavery can have no existence in Indiana.” While this did not free people still enslaved in Indiana, it did set a precedent that would have a ripple effect. After winning her case, Strong disappears from any recorded documents. The rest of her life remains a mystery because there is almost no documentation for women in the antebellum era, especially Black enslaved women, because they could not vote, own land, pay taxes, etc. The rest of Polly Strong’s story may forever be unknown, but her courage to pursue her freedom will not be.
The Story of Mary Bateman Clark
Because of the precedent set by Polly Strong, a path was paved for 19-year-old Mary Bateman Clark to get what she had always deserved from birth—her freedom.
Mary Bateman Clark was an enslaved woman who came to Indiana from Kentucky. She was sold to a man in Indiana, the same year Indiana established its statehood. After living as an indentured servant for five years, she began working with Amory Kinney, the same lawyer from the Polly Strong case. As in Strong’s case, they first brought the case to the Knox County Circuit Court, which favored slavery and indentured servitude because the initial case was lost. Amory Kinney immediately filed an appeal and took the case to the Indiana Supreme Court. Mary Clark won her freedom in this court proceeding. The Supreme Court justices agreed that involuntary servitude was unconstitutional, and Mary would be released from her contract.
Along with the case involving Polly Strong, Mary Clark’s case set a precedent. While this case did not free every person enslaved under the banner of indentured servitude, it allowed other enslaved people to pursue their freedom. It closed a loophole White slaveholders used to circumvent the law.
The Legacy Mary Left Behind
Many lessons can be learned from Mary Bateman Clark, but one of them is the power of courage. A documentary by WTIU Public Television describes the pressure placed on Amory Kinney during the trials for Strong, Clark and other enslaved people. It was said that Amory Kinney was attacked so many times that he moved to another county in the state. If that was the kind of pressure being put on a White man, it is easy to imagine the treatment of Black women like Mary Clark and Polly Strong. The immense amount of courage it had to take to continue pursuing their freedom despite the challenges is inspirational.
The same documentary from WTIU includes an interview with Eunice Brewer-Trotter, a descendant of Mary Clark. Brewer-Trotter spent 30 years researching the life of Clark and tracking down more information. In 2020, she published a book called Black in Indiana. Because of her dedication to learning more about her ancestor, a state historical marker was put up in 2009 in Vincennes, Indiana, detailing the legacy of Mary Bateman Clark. Clark’s legacy continues to live on through her descendants and the power of her courage and determination.
Connecting Back to Our Present and Future
As a White woman learning more about the story of Mary Bateman Clark, a few things stuck with me. First, I have often heard throughout my childhood and adolescence that there was not much slavery happening in Indiana and that it was mostly Southern states that supported something so insidious. While I have learned the contrary in adulthood, this sugarcoated description of Indiana whitewashes the history of Black people in the state. Many enslaved people lived in Indiana, and every one of their stories is important.
Second, while some White people in Indiana did not support slavery, not all believed Black people deserved their full rights. Many working-class White people wanted slavery and indentured servitude to be stopped because it affected their ability to work. The labor of enslaved people was cheaper for wealthy White people than paying other White people. In many Northern states, slavery was ended to preserve White people’s economic interests. And when Black enslaved people were freed, racism was integrated into systems and policies continued to reduce their rights.
In remembrance of Juneteenth, it is crucial to look back at our shared history, including the ways laws and systems were used to intentionally marginalize Black women and men. The North has little high road over the Southern states; White supremacy was enforced across the United States and descendants of enslaved peoples continue to endure the repercussions of that injustice. The stories of Mary Bateman Clark and Polly Strong remind us of this and of the courage and determination of enslaved women to achieve liberation.
About Women’s Fund
At Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, we are dedicated to mobilizing people, ideas and investments, so every woman and girl in our community has an equitable opportunity to reach her full potential – no matter her place, race or identity. We invest in organizations that help women in our focus areas, caregiving, intimate violence, economic empowerment and girls’ programs. Learn more about Women’s Fund.