In 1939 the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the death of John Henry Gibson, who had been enslaved in North Carolina over 70 years before. In the days before his death Gibson had refused to eat, telling his son “`I am just tired and want to rest’ … Sunday morning he was found dead by his son, alone and unattended. The deputy coroner said he died from starvation.” Gibson was one of 21 Indianapolis residents interviewed in 1937 and 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project oral histories usually referred to as the Slave Narratives. These 21 oral historical voices were part of a landmark study including 61 interviews conducted in Indiana.
Gibson was quite possibly the oldest of the Indianapolis research subjects. Gibson acknowledged he did not know his birthdate; most 19th and early 20th century primary records placed his birthdate around 1837, and at his death in February 1939 the Indianapolis Recorder suggested Gibson was 115 years old. It is unlikely Gibson was 115, and a few records suggested he was not born until 1850, but he may well have been a century old when he was interviewed in 1938. Candus Richardson was born about a decade after Gibson, but when she died on October 10, 1955 she was the last of the Indianapolis’ Slave Narrative captives to die. Born in Mississippi in 1847, Candus Richardson (sometimes spelled Candice or Candies) did not come to Indianapolis until about World War I. At her death the 108-year-old certainly must have been among the Circle City’s final surviving captives.
Richardson was born on the slaveholding of James M. and Elizabeth Scott in Franklin County, Mississippi. In the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules Scott held 20 captives, and these included one female aged three that was almost certainly Candus Richardson; Scott held three Black males aged 15, one of whom may have been Gordon Richardson, with whom Candus would have about 12 children. Candus Richardson bore lifelong physical scars from beatings at James Madison Scott’s hand, and “Scott beat her husband a lot of times because he caught him praying. … Jim Scott beat her husband so unmerciful for praying that his shirt was as red from blood stain `as if you’d paint it with a brush.’”
Candus’ husband Gordon was one of scores of enslaved African Americans compelled to serve their masters during the war. Candus remembered in 1937 that Gordon “went to the war to be `what you call a valet for Master Jim’s son, Sam.’” Scott’s son Samuel was a Private in the 7th Mississippi infantry, and on December 31, 1862 he was wounded at the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Scott was probably served by Richardson during a hospitalization that lasted until about June, 1863. After Scott’s return to action he fought in the Battle of Missionary Ridge in November 1863, apparently with Gordon Richardson still in tow, but Scott was severely wounded in Atlanta on July 9, 1864. Scott’s leg was amputated, and he and Gordon returned to the Mississippi plantation as the war wound down.
Candus Richardson indicated in 1937 that the Scotts did not tell their captives that they had been freed for “almost a year” after the war. Candus remembered that Scott eventually told them “he didn’t have to give us any thing to eat and that he didn’t have to give us a place to stay, but we could stay and work for him and he would pay us. But we left that night and walked for miles through the rain to my husban’s [sic] brother and then told them that they all were free. Then we all came up to Kentucky in a wagon and lived there.” Nevertheless, the Richardsons were living in Mississippi near the Scott plantation by 1877. Gordon and Candus Richardson were still living there in 1910, when he was working on a farm and Candus was a laundress.
Gordon Richardson died in about 1913, and it appears Candus, her daughter Charlotte, and son-in-law John Tucker moved to Indianapolis after John served in World War I. They first settled on Harmon Street around 1920, which has today been erased by the Eli Lilly Research Laboratories campus on the near-Southside. In 1920 Charlotte appeared in the census as a “janitoress” at a “medicine factory,” which certainly was the Eli Lilly company. Candus lived with her daughter and son-in-law in Indianapolis the rest of her life. The three of them eventually moved to 2710 Boulevard Place, where Candus Richardson was interviewed in August, 1937; they moved to 2406 North Capitol in about 1942, and John Tucker died there a year later. Charlotte and Candus were living there at the time of Candus’ death in 1955.
At her death, Richardson was likely the longest-lived Slave Narrative subject in Indianapolis. John Henry Gibson may have been the oldest of the 21 Indianapolis interview subjects. Interviewed by Anna Pritchett on January 24, 1938, Gibson was born in North Carolina, where he spent much of his captivity owned by a man named Gibson from whom John Henry took his last name. The summary of John Henry Gibson’s interview indicated that he “is very proud of his name, having been named for his old master” who “was very kind to his slaves.” Gibson volunteered for the United States Colored Troops and told Pritchett he had served, but surviving military records indicate he was rejected by the mustering officer for unknown reasons.
Gibson was part of the earliest post-Emancipation wave of African-American migration to Indianapolis. He first came to Indianapolis in the late 1860s, then went back to North Carolina and married Eliza Kimball in 1875. The newlyweds settled on Maxwell Street in about 1876, and the couple had at least five children before her death sometime between 1910 and 1912. Their home was barely a block from the Colton Street home where Anna Pritchett would interview John Henry in 1938, and he would live for 60 years in that same Indianapolis neighborhood alongside the Indiana University Medical Center campus. Gibson had arrived long before the City Hospital had expanded into the near-Westside, and in 1939 the Indianapolis Star reported that after Gibson came to Indianapolis “the former slave farmed a section of bottomland where the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children now stands.” Eventually Colton Street was erased by the expansion of the IU Medical Center in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Gibson worked at a vast range of manual labor over nearly a century, and a 1937 plumbing accident had apparently left him nearly blind at the time he was interviewed. In the relatively modest neighborhood Gibson was reputed to have routinely lent money or given food to his poorest neighbors: the Indianapolis Recorder indicated that Gibson “served as a refuge for under-privileged members of both races who came to him for advice, a loan, and sometimes a piece of bread. Gibson never turned them away empty-handed—he was not that type. On more than one occasion he would see deputy sheriffs setting some person out of doors and then he would pay the cost and let them put the furniture back in the humble home.”
At the conclusion of her interview, Candus Richardson told Anna Pritchett “You see that pencil that you have in your hand there, why, that would cost me my life ‘if old Mas’ Jim would see me with a pencil in my hand. But I lived to see both him and Miss Elizabeth die a hard death.” Richardson stressed the depth of her faith, indicating that she and her fellow captives “didn’t have any Bible on the Scott plantation … for it meant a beating or `a killing if you’d be caught with one.’” On the eve of World War II, Richardson and the last captives interviewed in the Slave Narratives underscored the significance of even the most seemingly mundane privileges—learning to write, owning a Bible—and served an important reminder how close in time America remained to captivity.
Riley Hospital Construction April 1923 image courtesy IUPUI University Library. Special Collections and Archives