Mary Bateman Clark: A Woman of Colour and Courage explores the pursuit of freedom and equality—a theme central to American history and to the complex and changing notions of race, slavery, and the law that existed in antebellum America, even in the North. The program focuses on the Indiana Supreme Court case of In re Mary Clark (1821). The 1816 Indiana constitution stated that, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state.” Nevertheless, slavery and involuntary servitude did exist in Indiana after 1816. Led by Governor William Henry Harrison, Hoosiers created subterfuges (principally indenture) that enabled them to maintain what they believed were their property rights. Within this context, an African American woman, Mary Bateman Clark, and her lawyers challenged the indenture system. She won her freedom. This ruling contributed substantially to ending involuntary servitude in Indiana.
Mary Bateman Clark: A Woman of Colour and Courage is an inspiring story of a woman who was a warrior for freedom. We have brought together historians knowledgeable about the case, the Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, whose staff has done extensive research on the case, and the great-great-great-granddaughters of Mary Bateman Clark—Eunice Trotter and Ethel McCane. These two ladies, who live in Indianapolis, have not only done extensive research on their own about Mary Bateman Clark, but share her experience with students and adults through reenacting her story.
Mary Bateman Clark had been a slave in Kentucky and was brought to Vincennes by her master B.J. Harrison in 1815, when she was about 14 years old. She was later indentured as a servant to Harrison. In 1816, Harrison sold her contract to G.W. Johnston. In 1821, Clark and her lawyer, Amory Kinney, petitioned Knox County Indiana Circuit Court to terminate her indenture, since she had entered the arrangement involuntarily. The county court ruled against her. Later that year, Clark and members of Kinney’s law firm appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court. The Court discharged her from service. This ruling contributed to the end of indentured servitude in Indiana.
The program shows how Trotter and McCane work together to discover and tell the story of their great, great, great grandmother. Trotter, a journalist, does much of the historical digging to uncover the story buried for nearly two centuries. Her sister, a drama teacher, takes what was learned and develops an ever-evolving reenactment of Mary Bateman Clark, which is performed for students and adults all over Indiana. We see these reenactments before real audiences.
The program also features James Madison, a historian at Indiana University, providing the context for the story; Elizabeth Osborn, a historian for the Indiana Supreme Court, describing the research she has done and the documents she has found about the case of Mary Bateman Clark; Richard Day, historian at the Vincennes State Historic Sites sharing information about life in early 19th Century Vincennes, where the case began, and former Chief Justice Randall Shepard of the Indiana Supreme Court describing the legal context in which the case took place. Both stories—the academic and the personal—come together in the Indiana Supreme Court case In re Clark (1821). The program uses visuals, original documents, and locations that are central to the story—for example, the first territorial capitol in Vincennes, other sites in Knox County, the second territorial, and first state capitol in Corydon.
The case demonstrated that even during the infancy of Indiana, important issues of justice, equality, and freedom were being debated and resolved.