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Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Father's Oral History Mystery: Lyles Station and the 1857 "Round House Battle"

CAPTIONS: [Left] Black schoolchildren at the school at Lyles Station, circa late-1800s. (My great-grandmother may be one of the darker girls on the right.)
SOURCE: Lyles Station Historic Preservation Society.

[Right] Me posing at age 11: "My Own Roots"


By 1977, Alex Haley’s Roots had swept the nation—and suddenly I was interested in knowing my family history. Had there been a Kunta Kinte in my family’s past? A Kizzy?

As a parent now, I can only imagine how happy my father was when his 11-year-old eldest daughter—whose biggest preoccupation was stealing his legal pads to write stories about kids on space ships and talking cats—approached him and said, “Dad, do you know any stories about our ancestors?”

My father’s face lit up. "Did I ever tell you about Lyles Station and the Battle of the Round House? It’s a story my grandmother told me, and her mother told her.”

The story she told my father about Lyles Station, Indiana, is recounted in the book I co-authored with my mother, Patricia Stephens Due: Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. (My great-grandmother in Indiana, Lydia Stewart Graham, died only three years later, in 1980, when she was 89.)

I was so enthralled by the story that I created a school project called “My Own Roots,” illustrated with my father’s drawings and family photographs, pictured above.


“In the 1850s, not long before the Civil War, a slave master in North Carolina decided to set his slaves free. He bought them a parcel of land in Indiana under his own name. Now these freed slaves had somewhere to go, land where they could build their own houses and start their own farms. So they packed up everything they owned and drove the wagon train from North Carolina to Indiana.

“When they arrived, they began to farm the land. They had bumper crops, better than they expected. In town they sold what they grew, so they were not only feeding themselves, but they were earning money. And they were so prosperous that they started attracting attention to themselves. The white farmers who lived around them started getting jealous. And this came at a time when a lot of folk in Indiana were putting pressure on the governor to make it a slave state. They started thinking, ‘Now who are these niggers making all this money?’ That’s when the trouble started.”

Even as a child, I had heard plenty about that kind of trouble. Stories like that didn’t have happy endings for black people.

My father went on: “Well, sure enough, one night after it was dark, the neighbors of those freed slaves came in a surprise attack. The freed slaves were sleeping in their beds when the shooting started. But they had thought about what to do in the event of something just like this, so they all ran to what’s called a ‘round house.’ That was a big, sturdy building where they stored their farming equipment. They had their rifles in there, too. The men passed out the rifles and shot at their attackers through the narrow windows of the round house, while the women climbed up into the loft and reloaded the guns.

“Suddenly, the door came crashing down. The armed white farmers began swarming inside. But again, the freed slaves were ready for them. They had lined up on either side of the door with battle-axes raised over their heads. When the farmers broke in, they swung those axes down. They won the fight, but it caused a big problem, of course.

“Even the governor had to get involved. He helped them move to a settlement called Lyles Station. Freed slaves from all over came to Lyles Station to settle in a place where their neighbors wouldn’t bother them. They built a thriving community. And my grandmother was born in Princeton, Indiana, which is near Lyles Station. They still have family reunions at Lyles Station.”

When my mother and I were researching Freedom in the Family, I was unable to verify my great-grandmother’s story of the Battle of the Round House, although I contacted the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Society. (There is a children’s book about Lyles Station by Scott Russell Sanders, A Place Called Freedom, which does not include the Round House Battle either.)

But my Great-Grandmother Lydia always stood by her story.


My father, John Due, is now a retired civil rights attorney with his own grandchildren, but he has never forgotten that story he heard at his grandmother’s knee. He also has great curiosity, a fondness for the internet and a skeptical mind.

This year, he and his cousin Glenn in Indiana began researching to try to verify the story of the Round House Battle—and their digging mined gold. The most definitive account my father found was an article by university social sciences professor Randy K. Mills that ran in “Black History News and Notes,” a quarterly publication of the Indiana Historical Society Library, in August of 2005. The article is entitled “’They Defended Themselves Nobly’”: A Story of African American Empowerment in Evansville, Indiana, 1857.”

The article details how a family named Lyles journeyed from Tennessee to Indiana after being freed by their slave-master, quoting a direct descendant named Carl Lyles who said they were told to only travel at night and follow the North Star, and that “records show that by the mid-1850s Lyles men had purchased substantial holdings” in Vanderbergh and Gibson counties. [My father believes that our family journeyed some time later, from North Carolina.]

As in my great-grandmother’s story, the article says that the freed black thrived, and a community of about 200 freed blacks and escaped slaves lived in a remote community called The Bayou. “In truth,” Mills writes, “the Lyles probably could not have found a more anti-black region of the state in which to live.”

At a time when kidnapping a freed black was a lesser offense than stealing a horse, as Mills notes—and when lynchings and fears of slave uprisings abounded—an altercation arose between the Lyles family and white neighbors over a hog. According to newspaper accounts, the Lyles’ hog escaped into the field of a white neighbor named Thomas Edmonds. Twenty-four-year-old John Lyles was outraged, although the whites claimed they were merely trying to trap the hog to return it to its owners. The Lyles men were reportedly armed with “clubs and guns,” according to the newspaper The Daily Enquirer.

John Lyles allegedly struck one of Edmonds’ sons with a gun muzzle, causing a serious injury that appeared life-threatening, and the elder Edmonds was also injured. The Lyles men were charged with “assault and battery, with an attempt to commit murder,” according to Mills.

Five Lyles brothers were arrested and freed after posting $1,000 bail—itself almost unheard of at that time. As local newspapers reported these events, the public grew inflamed. The Enquirer urged whites in Union Townships to “[rid] herself of the large numbers of free blacks who now infest it,” according to Mills’ article.

Then, on July 25, 1857, a group of up to 100 heavily armed white men converged on the Lyles family cabin. As Mills writes, they would have brought a cannon if they had not been thwarted while trying to steal it from the courthouse. Instead, they began their attack armed with guns. Before it was over, at least one white man was dead and there were scores of injuries.
The sheriff convinced the Lyles brothers to go into protective custody in Evansville to await trial, and they eventually resettled in what became known as Lyles Station.


Despite a few discrepancies, the article seems to corroborate some key elements of the story my great-grandmother told my father—but it still left gaping questions in his mind. First, how were so few whites killed? And how did the Lyles family avoid extermination? During the 1960s civil rights struggle more than a hundred years later, Southern blacks lived in terror of being killed for far milder offenses than the Round House Battle.

In Tulsa in 1921, between 25 and 300 blacks were killed in riots that erupted after reports that a black youth had tried to rape or assault a white woman; 35 blocks in the black community of Greenwood were torched. John Singleton’s movie Rosewood recounts the tragic destruction of an entire black town after a black drifter supposedly raped a white woman in 1923. And Emmett Till, only 14, was beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, my mother and other civil rights workers were shot at in Quincy, Florida, at for trying to register blacks to vote while she was a field secretary for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Southern blacks lived in terror of reprisals for civil rights activism.

The more my father researched the Battle of the Round House, the more questions he had, especially when the characters and personalities came to life: He learned that a man who was killed (or severely injured) in the attack was a county commissioner, Alexander Maddox. And the sheriff who supposedly intervened to help ferry the blacks to safety, John S. Gavitt, would seem to have been the last person to take on that role.

“He was a federal marshal before he was sheriff. As a federal marshal…he had a reputation for arresting famous abolitionists. One of them was from Philadelphia who helped blacks escape from Alabama. He caught up with him in Indiana, arrested everybody, got a judge to find them guilty, and while he was transporting them to abolitionist allegedly tried to escape and got killed. This guy was a character, just like Wyatt Earp in the west. It seems very odd.”

But then again, maybe not.

"Let’s look at the choices he has: They had telegraphs in those days. They could have telegraphed the governor’s office and gotten permission to bring over the Indiana militia, and they could have gone down and protected the blacks from that attack. They could have used the same relationship to arrest white attackers. The newspapers would have a field day about not providing law and justice for white people.”

Mills’ article does not mention an intervention by the governor, but my father believes it was inevitable.

"The paper said the sheriff moved the Lyles group back to Gibson County,” Dad says. “The sheriff had no authority to do that in another county. He had to have authorization from the governor.”

Dad goes on: “The story from my grandmother makes more sense, that it was the governor—who controlled the Land Office—who provided new lands for the brothers and our foreparents back in Gibson County, which was only about 15 to 20 miles away from Union Township. But this was an otherwise secret arrangement, because the anti-black politics were very hostile, and the governor could not politically show his hand. The sheriff took the responsibility because he was a lame duck anyway.”

The intervention of Indiana’s governor could explain the sheriff’s stance—but why did the governor make his choices? Why relocate the blacks to new land?

Dad goes on: “All these years, I assumed the governor was some liberal—but this was a Democrat. [In 1857, Democrats were the pro-slavery party.] So what was the motivation for the sheriff and the governor to save our foreparents’ lives so that you and I could exist today?”

For the answer, my father studied the political landscape of the time, when slavery had divided a nation at the eve of the Civil War and immigrants were pouring into Indiana from Germany and Ireland. And, as noted by Mills in his article, a local newspaper lamented that some locals preferred to live near the freed blacks—who were successful farmers contributing to the community—than the immigrants.

“It was good business for the political parties to have these Europeans active in politics,” Dad says. “They became the backbone of a new Republican party that was developed in Indiana. Abraham Lincoln was reaching out to them in order to develop the new Republican party.

“President Buchanan and the Indiana governor and sheriff were allied with the Southern Democrats. The Germans and the Irish immigrants voted the sheriff out of office, so he was pissed off anyway. There was a class prejudice against the Germans and the Irish.”

Did politics and ethnicity trump race in the aftermath of the Battle of the Round House? And even if that was the case, why would Indiana’s governor go to the trouble of relocating the freed slaves and providing them with new land?

The answer, my father believes, lies with my ancestors' roots in North Carolina. The blacks were farming the land, but it had been purchased for them by a white slave-owner.

“It wasn’t for their rights—it was for the right of the former slave-owner,” my father theorizes. “The governor of Indiana, the sheriff in Evansville, had common understanding as Southerners. Evansville, although it is in the free state of Indiana, had a Southern culture. They were just interested in the slave-owners.”

Furthermore, Dad says, it was smart business to keep a profitable black community.

“Indiana was in a serious depression, basically the way we are today,” Dad says. “They went into serious debt using public funds to build the Wabash Canal and the railroad. The value of these farmers is that they were able to go into the market and help pay off the debt. Their produce helped supply profit for the buyers and the suppliers and traders using that railroad. It was about business.”


This was the same year as the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves and their descendants—even if they were freed or born free—could never be U.S. citizens and were not protected by the Constitution. Since blacks were not deemed citizens, they also could not sue in court. Legally, blacks were at the mercy of their communities’ whims, as many blacks would be for generations to come.

My father’s theory is that the slave-owner made the original journey with the freed blacks on the wagon train to ensure their safety, and so that he could purchase the land for them. So not only did this North Carolina slave-owner decide to grant freedom to persons whom the law considered only property, but he shepherded their safe passage.


“We have been brought up on how slavery was one thing—horrible,” Dad says. “Atrocious. Mean-spirited. Treating people like they’re animals. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the western part of North Carolina, western Tennessee and western Kentucky, relationships between slaves and slave masters were much different than relationships between slaves and slave masters in Mississippi or Georgia or Alabama.

“One reason is, in the Deep South there were big plantations and the slave-owner practically didn’t know who the slaves were. But in Roots, remember the slave-owner and Chicken George working together? That was common in North Carolina. Slave owners and slaves worked together. It was more of a relationship. He knew that if he did not take care of them as freepersons, they would be taken in North Carolina to be sold to slavery to somebody else.”

And my father believes the roots of go deeper than a slave-owner who recognized his slaves’ humanity because they worked side-by-side.

After months of research and pondering, my father believes he found the core answer by looking at old family photographs. My great-grandmother and grandmother were both fair-skinned. In the historical photograph he found from a school at Lyles Station in the late-1800s, he notes that most of the black children pictured are also very fair.

What if the freedmen weren’t just slaves—what if they were the slave-owner’s children?

“He had no duty to free his slaves, no duty after freeing them to buy this land to settle. You can talk about laws or the Constitution, but human beings are social animals. And all social animals care for their children,” Dad says.

Most of us do, anyway.

Perhaps my father will never know if he’s right about his theories about the “Battle of the Round House” and the founding of Lyles Station, and his curiosity is not yet satisfied.

Who knows? Perhaps my forebears only survived because of a long-ago gift from a father who had a change of heart.

Whatever the answers to the mystery from history, my great-grandmother’s story has never died.


John Due can be contacted at


Ashe Hunt said...

This is a wonderful story. It's great that you have an actual story to go with your personal family past. Seems fighting for your freedom actually runs in your bloodline! Yes, it wasn't until I was an adult for many years that I learned the majority of actual slave owners weren't the stereotypical "plantation"-type. Most were owners of small plots of land that the slaves actually had more of a "say" on and the reality of who does the work and the worth of that was known. Know wonder it's referred to as the "peculiar" institution. That kind of makes you wonder because, for so long, the majority of the info we've received on slavery, like so much else, has been controlled and run through the filters of white people, which means they made themselves look worse on purpose. Or only wanted to perpetuate the idea of the worst of the slave owners. The only way that makes sense, to me, is some twisted idea that that would cause enough fear to maybe keep us down. Regardless, slavery, and being a slave in america, was just plain wrong and there was always a "fight" against it from this county's beginnings. It's just cool to see that your family had a direct hand in that fight way before (and just like they did in) the civil rights era.

Stay strong in body and mind. Hope everything is well with you, Steve, Jason, and the rest of your family.

scorpioneagle said...

Hello Tananarive,
What a great work you and your Father have done! I find particular joy in it because I am a Lyles Station Descendant! My Grandfather's Uncle David Cole left from Princeton with John and Arthella Lyles on June 15, 1863 to go and fight in the Civil War with the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. One of the battles where they fought was at Honey Hill in South Carolina.
Steve Cole