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Old March 19th, 2012, 03:42 PM   #1

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Lyles Station, Indiana

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March 19, 2012

Black History: African-American settlements
Blacks formed their own settlements in the state
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Lyles Station

This story was originally published in The Indianapolis Star on Feb. 2, 1997

LYLES STATION, Ind. - In the bleak years following the Civil War, blacks fleeing the racism, violence and devastation of the South created more than 40 all-black farming communities in Indiana.

The little settlements had wonderful names. Snow Hill and Cabin Creek in Randolph County. Colored Freedom in Dubois County. Lost Creek in Vigo County. Lick Creek in Orange County.

Sadly, over the long years, they've slowly disappeared, largely for economic reasons. All that remains are the crumbling stone foundations of houses, and the overgrown cemeteries with headstones slowly sinking into the earth at odd angles.

But Lyles Station is still here, right along a country road just north of Ind. 64 in Gibson County, in the sweet, sandy soil of the Wabash River bottomlands.

Only about six families now call this place home. Every spring, they tenaciously turn the soil that their ancestors stumbled onto 150 years ago, and every fall, they rev up the great, green John Deere combines in preparation for harvest.

Norman E. Greer, 59, is one of those diligent farmers.

He grew up here, of course. His great-great-grandfather, Levy Greer, a white man, was an original settler, coming from Alabama shortly after the Civil War with his black girlfriend.

"Let's see," said Norman Greer, sitting in his kitchen counting families on his fingers. "I'm still here, I think, and then there's Chavis, Cletus Hardiman, Glen Marsh and my brother, Gerald Greer. 'Bout it, I guess."

Like generations of Lyles Station families, Norman and his wife, Doris, have raised remarkably successful children who know the value of hard work. All six of the Greer children have graduated from or are attending college. All six have left Lyles Station.

And like farmers everywhere, Norman has his grouchy moments. The world, he believes, is against farmers. He grumbles and grouses about crop prices, loan rates, treacherous and greedy white bankers - and, of course, the weather. Always the weather.

"I farmed all these years, I did. It's either drought or flood. This sandy soil is either too wet or dried-up like concrete. But I survived," he said, stroking his Amish-style beard.

In the 1980s, Norman was whipsawed between soaring interest rates on his bank notes, a failing crop and plunging land values. The guarantor of those notes, the federal government, came calling with one simple, unyielding demand. Pay up or get out. Now.

It took several years to untangle that mess, but not before Norman sold off several sizeable chunks of land to satisfy the loans and get those miserable federal people off his aching back.

He's still sputtering mad about it, but he kept his home, his considerable pride and his farm equipment. He's still fuming at the white bankers in nearby Princeton who he claims make life miserable for black farmers.

That, however, is not a universally held opinion around here.

"Norman, you're nuts," said Doris. "Bankers care about one color, and that's green."
Of course, racial problems exist, she explains, but they're more complex and subtle than Norman's ranting version.

Anyway, Norman's hanging in there in a comfortable home he built himself on a hill next door to the old schoolhouse. A few years ago, someone wanted to buy the abandoned two-story school, demolish it and fill the lot with junk cars. Norman found that unacceptable.

"I bought it for $3,500," said Norman. "I went to school in that building, and I didn't want it turned into a junk lot." He meant to restore it, but it fell down first, the roof collapsing right onto Norman's fifth grade classroom, naturally.

Norman believes Lyles Station will someday vanish and sink into the earth, like all the other black settlements. Poof. Just like that. The sky is falling. Nothing can stop it. Some racist, double-talking white bankers will trick him off the land, and he'll be homeless.

"Norman has a negative attitude," Doris said. "I go along with his ups and downs. He says he's gonna ship out of Lyles Station when he wins the lottery, but he's going without me because I love it here, I raised my children here, my home is here, my job is here, my church is here, and I'm staying."

Norman sat quietly. Hat still respectfully in hand.

Lyles Station will survive, Doris flatly predicts, and that's that, Norman.

"This is my outlook on it," she patiently explained. "Our church is still going, and it's still going for a good reason. The church is our beacon of hope, and a beacon never dies. Norman's been saying the town will die since I came here and married him 39 years ago."

Norman didn't argue. He twisted his hat and smiled weakly.

Back in the safety of his pickup truck, he allows as how his wife might be right. She usually is, he concedes, blasting through snow drifts down gravel roads, grumbling about the Arctic cold, bankers and other threats, both real and imagined.

"See over there? An old log house sat there. My Aunt Cleta lived there with Grandpa Thomas Greer, son of Willis, son of Levy. And over there is old Levy's place.

Grandpa Willis Greer lived there, too," noted Norman, warming to his new role as tour guide.

There is nothing there now. Just winter fields, raked by strong winds blasting across the flat bottomlands. The old houses are all gone.

"They just burned down and stuff like that," Norman said.

"You can't imagine how it was when I was a little bitty boy. I'd go to Princeton twice a year in a buggy with Dad. We didn't have cars. I didn't think we were poor, but I guess we were."

He said he figures Lyles Station probably is a beacon that will never be extinguished. He hadn't thought of it that way, until Doris yelled at him.

But, truth is, the history here is powerful.

In the beginning

Lyles Station got its start sometime around 1840 when a benevolent Tennessee slaveowner freed two brothers named Joshua and Sanford Lyles, gave them money and urged them to seek freedom in a northern state.

They journeyed up the turbulent Tennessee River to the wide Ohio and up the twisting Wabash River to where they stopped right here, in far southwestern Indiana.

Why here, no one knows. Probably because Indiana was a free state, although Illinois is just on the other side of the river bank.

Though Indiana had outlawed slavery, it was hardly Negro-friendly - but it unquestionably was an improvement over the state-sanctioned brutality and slave auctions of Tennessee.

The brothers walked two miles east of the Wabash and bought a chunk of government land. In 1840, Indiana was still a dense, tangled wilderness, the western edge of an emerging nation. The brothers cleared their ground and planted crops. Eventually, they would accumulate more than 1,200 acres of fertile river bottomlands.

Following the Civil War, Joshua returned to Tennessee and encouraged newly freed slaves to join him in this Indiana Garden of Eden, where cantaloupes and tomatoes grew as big as pumpkins in the sandy soil. And where, better yet, whites won't bother you much.

The migration began.

Lyles Station flourished in large part because, in 1870, Joshua donated five acres to the railroad on the condition it build a train station here. The train allowed Lyles Station farmers to export their grain, produce and timber without making the arduous, 5-mile, uphill wagon trip east into Princeton, the exclusive domain of often hostile white people.

In 1886, a post office opened. A school started. The Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was established to serve the soul of the community. It still stands, the beacon of hope Doris spoke about. Two grocery stores followed. A lumber mill. A bandstand. A blacksmith, 55 homes and the Sand Hill Cemetery.

By the dawn of the 20th Century, 800 people lived and farmed in and around Lyles Station and Patoka Township, a financially independent community, free of troubling whites. The promise of Civil War victory was realized here.

A mighty flood

Then in the spring of 1913, the Wabash River that carried people North to freedom in the promised land rose up like an avenging Southern angel.

A few miles north, the Patoka River also rose, and north of there the White River and all the creeks and streams that fed both of them rose. And while they kept rising, it kept raining, until southwestern Indiana looked like a roiling, churning inland sea.

The fury and strength of the great wall of water flattened homes, drowned cattle, bent railroad tracks into steel pretzels, and lifted and drove the railroad ties into the ground at right angles until they resembled a picket fence.

Carl Chester Lyles Sr., the great-great-grandson of Joshua, is 85, a retired high school principal and college professor, now living in Evansville.

He remembers his father's stories of the mighty flood that drove a terrible stake through the heart of the community. It did more than sweep away possessions and destroy a season's crop. It dashed dreams born over decades of backbreaking, bone-numbing field work and took away the promise of a better tomorrow.

"It washed away the good old days and all the dreams we had," recalls Carl Lyles in his strikingly strong, clear voice.

He bears a startling resemblance to Daddy King, the father of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., both in appearance and demeanor. His voice booms and thunders like a country preacher, exhorting the dead to rise and once again sing the old Negro spirituals.

"I remember Daddy could only shake his head mournfully and say `It just kept coming and coming,' " thundered Lyles, who grew up in Lyles Station and went on to become one of southwestern Indiana's most respected educators for 42 years.

Disheartened and defeated, many country residents fled to the safety and security of regular paychecks in the factories of Evansville, Terre Haute, faraway Indianapolis and points beyond.

Reasons to leave

As the 20th Century progressed, the lure of steady paychecks slowly drained the populations of other small farming settlements, both black and white. Besides that, young people everywhere wanted more - and the more appeared to be anywhere but on the farm.

In black settlements, there was another reason to flee.

Where once blacks were limited to farming, teaching in segregated schools and cleaning white people's toilets, new options became available. Legal segregation ended, and black students could attend college and explore a wider world beyond the sandy river bottoms.

For all these reasons, and probably more, most black settlements slowly began to fade and finally disappeared entirely.

But Lyles Station lives, hanging on by a frayed thread against all odds, the last link to a vital, overlooked chapter in Indiana's proud black history. The school Norman bought is a wreck; the post office closed 50 years ago, and the grocery stores are gone.

But the beacon of hope, the Wayman Chapel A.M.E., remains. The Great Flood of 1913 spared the church with the tall steeple. It was as if the hand of God reached down and split the roaring waters and spared this one small place, so that those who lived here could keep the home fires burning.

And every Sunday at 10 a.m., the Rev. Lucretia Guest from Evansville preaches a sermon to a tiny group of believers, including Norman and Doris.
They are the keepers of Joshua's flame.

www.indystar.com | Printer-friendly article page

Last edited by glorybound; March 19th, 2012 at 03:54 PM.
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Old March 19th, 2012, 03:51 PM   #2

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Mr. Lyles

The following is the obituary for my math teacher at Dexter Elementary, Evansville, Indiana, for the years 1967-'68. He was one of my favorite teachers, and there are a whole lot of us 'older' kids out here who will miss him. He was born in Lyles Station, Indiana. He died last last wednesday, th 14th.

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William Emmett Lyles, Sr., 93, of Evansville, passed away Wednesday, March 14, 2012. He was a resident at Willow Park Resident Center.

He was born at Lyles Station, IN, August 27, 1918. He was the fourth child of Jonathan Morton and Mary Alice (Stewart) Lyles. His formal education started at the Lyles Consolidated School in grades 1-7 and the Patoka School in grade 8. His four years of high school were completed at Lincoln High School in Princeton. He entered Indiana State University and completed his junior year prior to being drafted into the military during WWII. He was inducted into the Army Air Force in 1942 where he served three years and two months as a Technical Sergeant in the Signal Corps. He was awarded four bronze stars and the Belgian Fourragere during his active duty in Western Europe. He was honored to be part of the United States Military and was proud of his contributions to his country.

William returned to Indiana State University and received his BS and MS degrees in Education. He began his teaching career in 1947 with the Jeffersonville Public Schools. In 1951, he accepted a teaching position with the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation. William dedicated his life to the field of education with 40 years of service. He taught at Third Avenue School and Dexter School, was Social Studies Supervisor for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, and taught Geography as an instructor at the University of Evansville and the University of Kentucky community College in Henderson, Kentucky.

He served on numerous state and national committees. He was a member of the National Council for Social Studies, Indiana Council for Social Studies, the Indiana Council for Economic Education, twenty-five year member of Phi Delta Kappa Fraternity, Social Studies Supervisors Association, Educational Supervision and Management Association, Association of Educational Administrators – Evansville, State Social Studies Advisory Council, Indiana Department of Civil Defense and Emergency Management, and Indiana Council for Economic Education Purdue University, and the first African American to be appointed to serve on the Police Merit Commission.

William was preceded in death by his parents, Mary Alice (Stewart) and Jonathan Morton Lyles; brothers, Carl and Earl Lyles; and sister, Allie Lyles Clift.

He is survived by his devoted wife of 68 years, Wilma (Major) Lyles; son, William (Dalerie) of Evansville; daughters, Debra (Kenneth) Stewart of Newburgh, Cheryl (Glenn) Hodge of Mobile, AL and Sheilah Lyles of Indianapolis; grandchildren, Shadia (Marlon) Anderson of Houston, TX, Chezik (Kudo) Tsunoda of Seattle, WA, Kaleah (Peter) Lemon of Newburgh, Jared (Cindy) Hodge of Atlanta, GA, Jason Hodge of Cedar Rapids, IA, Ashlyn Lyles of Bowling Green, KY, Joshua Hodge of Mobile, AL, Talia Young of Indianapolis; Cory Lyles of Evansville and Chelyn Lyles of Evansville; great-grandchildren, Zoe Anderson of Houston, TX, Caleb Anderson of Houston, TX, Hannah Anderson of Houston, TX, Madeleine Stewart of Newburgh, Ise Tsunoda of Seattle, WA and Nicholas Lemon of Newburgh; nieces, nephews and cousins.

William's life was devoted to working with children, traveling to distant places, and his family. His love for people was considered by him as his "greatest gift."

Services will be 10:00 AM Tuesday, March 20, 2012, at Alexander East Chapel, officiated by Rev. Tom Vanselow, with burial in Locust Hill Cemetery. Friends may visit Monday from 2:00 to 6:00 PM at the funeral home.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Alzheimer's Association , 4770 Covert Avenue, Evansville, IN 47714.

William Lyles, Obituary: View Obituary for William Lyles, by Alexander Funeral Home-East Chapel, Evansville, IN
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Old March 19th, 2012, 03:58 PM   #3

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EVANSVILLE — William Lyles, who integrated Evansville elementary schools in 1957 when he accepted a teaching position at Dexter, died last week. He was 93.

Lyles taught at Third Avenue School, an all-black school, before it closed. He then transferred to Dexter, which had all white students at the time.

He told the Courier & Press in 2003 that he took the job with some trepidation, and that two reporters were camped out by his classroom, waiting for "something to happen."

But he said everything went OK, and what he remembered most is "this gentleman came in before class, a well-dressed Caucasian. And he said to me, 'We are happy to have you at the school. If you have any problems, just let me know. I live right across the street.' And I thought this was probably going to work out after all."

Lyles served three years in the Army Air Force during World War II, stationed in Europe, before embarking on a 40-year career in education.

He taught in Jeffersonville, Ind., before coming to the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. in 1951.

In addition to his time at Third Avenue and Dexter, Lyles also was social studies supervisor for the EVSC and taught part-time at the University of Evansville and Henderson (Ky.) Community College.

Lyles' community involvement included being the first African American on the Evansville Police Department Merit Commission. Survivors include his wife of 68 years, Wilma; three daughters and a son.

"His greatest gift was in trying to help people, especially his students," said Lyles' nephew, Ron Lyles. "He was a mentor to a number of students ... He was well-respected not only by teachers but by parents as well."

William Lyles, educator who helped integrate Evansville schools, dies at 93 Evansville Courier & Press
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