Promised Land: New Conner Prairie exhibit focuses on Black Hoosier history

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Conner Prairie has been planning and developing its newest exhibit, Promised Land as a Proving Ground, for about three years. Following a series of delays, the outdoor museum is finishing up work on the last of three buildings integrated into the main outdoor Prairietown exhibit.

The new additions focus on Black Hoosiers, how they got here, what they endured and how they built lives for themselves.

On a very hot day in late July, Curatorial Director Charlene Fletcher and research associate Easton Phillips walked through Prairietown to show what’s been completed so far in the PLPG exhibit, and to talk about its evolution.

Fletcher, who has a doctorate in history, said she was hired about 2 1/2 years ago to curate PLPG. She said the original plan focused on Black history through the lens of the AME — the African Methodist Episcopal Church — and Black interactions with the Quaker community.

“And I said, ‘OK, no, we’re not doing that.’” Fletcher said, noting that Black people are not monolithic; they’re not all Christian; they don’t all attend church; and those that do attend many different churches.

The exhibit still has a faith focus, but different faiths are now represented. Fletcher said she also wanted to make sure the story started in pre-colonial Africa.

“This country tends to want to start the conversation about Black history around enslavement,” she said. “Enslavement was an experience that you find in Black history, but it’s not who Black people are.”

Another change she initiated was to integrate the new exhibit into Prairietown — where characters dress and act as though it’s 1836 — rather than offering it as a separate experience.

“I made it clear this cannot be a segregated experience,” she said. “Conner Prairie already has enough problems with the African American community. Follow the North Star damaged the relationship with the African American community — (there are) Black people who don’t want to come up here, quite frankly.”

The former North Star program was a reenactment of the Underground Railroad, where guests played the part of slaves. Fletcher said the program ended in 2019.

The new exhibit’s first cabin is complete and open to visitors. The Origins Cabin includes a garden in front and pens with spotted pigs in a tree-shaded area in the back.

Fletcher said the exhibit showcases how faith permeates many aspects of the African American experience through history, including food. The garden and livestock represent that and offer a way for Conner Prairie to build a relationship with Black residents.

“One-third of the City of Indianapolis is a food desert,” she said. “Since Conner Prairie is a working farm, and obviously we have the capacity to grow things and keep piggies and other animals because there’s a ton of animals up here, I feel like one of the first ways to develop that reciprocal relationship is to give food back to communities that are in need in Marion County.”

Inside the Origins Cabin, a video plays on a loop, telling the story of pre-colonial Africa, trade routes and eventually the slave trade, including how enslaved Africans brought seeds with them so they could grow their traditional foods. Graphics by Indianapolis-based artists Braintwins accompany the audio recording.

As visitors walk through Prairietown to the second cabin, Fletcher said they’ll have the opportunity for an “augmented reality” experience through an app. The app allows visitors to virtually meet real people from Indiana’s Black history, such as a schoolteacher, a blacksmith and a Civil War nurse.

The second cabin, the Resistance Cabin, is not yet open to the public but is complete. It focuses on Black Hoosier history. Fletcher noted that although Indiana was not a slave state, it wasn’t welcoming to Black people.

“In 1831, the state passed a law that required African Americans to register with their local clerk’s office, and they had to pay a $500 bond. That’s a lot of money in 2023, so just imagine in 1831,” she said. “And you had to prove financial stability, moral fitness. This is something that was not required of their white neighbors.”

Phillips looked it up, and $500 in 1831 is the equivalent of about $17,500 today.

Indiana also passed a law in 1837 that declared Black children were not allowed to attend public schools, and in 1851 rewrote the state Constitution to prohibit African Americans or biracial people from settling in Indiana.

“So, if you had not already been here and had registered, you couldn’t come here,” Fletcher said.

The third building, still under construction, focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries. That includes the civil rights movement, Black Hoosiers who served during the two world wars and interviews with current community faith leaders.

Fletcher is leaving for another job and said she’s disappointed that construction delays mean she won’t be at Conner Prairie when PLPG is completely open. She said the best part of the experience has been mentoring her team of research assistants — young historians who have been an important part of the overall project.

Phillips, one of those young historians, described his job as a “historical detective.”

“Because it’s more like piecing things together, like, ‘OK, what here would make sense, what here would not make sense.’ And just figuring all that out, that has basically been my role,” he said. “Sometimes you can do that from the comfort of a chair and look things up online. And other times, you have to physically get up and go to the (Indiana) Historical Society or the (Indiana) State Library to make sure you’re getting the best information, if it’s available.”

Phillips said not everyone will be open to the Promised Land as a Proving Ground exhibit, but he’s optimistic.

“We just want to make sure we have the best thing built to last so that we can reach as many people as possible, because if 100 people go into PLPG today and the Origins Cabin, and one person walks out a little bit more curious than they were and 99 people don’t, I think that’s a victory,” he said.

Fletcher said what’s needed now is outreach, especially to the area’s African American community. She has done some of that on her own but said a “build it and they will come” attitude is not going to work. She hopes Conner Prairie leadership will take a more active outreach role after she leaves.

According to the Conner Prairie officials, construction delays make it unclear when Promised Land as a Proving Ground will fully open.

For more, visit connerprairie.org.

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The Origins Cabin is the first of three cabins in the Promised Land as a Proving Ground exhibit at Conner Prairie and is the only one open to the public now. (Photo by Adam Seif)

New exhibit leads to history podcast

Two research assistants at Conner Prairie who have been working with Curatorial Director Charlene Fletcher launched a podcast about a year ago. Easton Phillips and Hannah Murphy are the hosts, and through the podcast they focus on problematic history and how that has affected society in the present day.

“This is Problematic” is hosted on the Conner Prairie website. Episodes can be found at connerprairie.org/this-is-problematic, and other podcast distribution sites.

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