The Heart of the Community
In 1835, several families of free African Americans from North Carolina and Virginia arrived in Indiana, seeking a place to pursue education, prosperity, and religious freedom. They bought land near abolitionist Quaker and Wesleyan communities in northern Hamilton County and established a settlement, where they made a living as small farmers.
Most of the original families inherited the last name Roberts from a North Carolina plantation owner, and today, Roberts Settlement remains one of the oldest historically black rural communities in the state. A chapel, cemetery, and a handful of houses remain to represent the historic settlement, and two grants from Indiana Landmarks are helping preserve this important heritage.
By 1851, Indiana had outlawed the formation of new black communities, but Roberts Settlement continued to grow. At its peak in the late 1800s, the community included around 300 families and more than 900 acres.
When they settled in the area, most early residents joined the Wesleyan Methodist faith – a denomination known for its strong antislavery beliefs – and settlement life centered around the church. At first a log structure functioned as both school and house of worship. The current Roberts Chapel, built in 1858, served as the heart of the community well into the twentieth century. In 1916 the congregation added a distinctive bell tower with an open cupola to the modest structure. The adjacent cemetery has been an active burial site since 1831.
No longer used for regular services, the building attracts former settlement residents and their descendants each year for homecoming events, a Fourth of July tradition since 1925. The Roberts Chapel Church and Burial Association (RCCBA) would like to expand programing at the chapel to include educational programs, weddings, and other events. A $2,500 grant from Indiana Landmarks’ African American Heritage Fund will help RCCBA pay for an engineering report, the first step in developing a long-term strategy for the building.
Just across the street from the chapel, a c.1860 farmhouse is one of the few remaining vestiges of domestic life from the settlement’s early years. Built by Micajah Walden and his wife Nancy Roberts – two of the original Roberts settlers – the house originated as a simple “double-pen” home, a two-room house with two front doors. Victorian-era residents added a porch and dormer. A $1,000 grant from our Partners in Preservation (PIP) program will help nominate the house – now privately owned – to the National Register of Historic Places.
To learn more about the history of Roberts Settlement, visit RCCBA’s website at http://www.robertssettlement.org/.
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