Standing at a podium at Lafayette Country Club was not the first time West Lafayette City Clerk Sana Booker had been the only African American in a room full of white people.
But on this occasion, she said the significance of her race was amplified. She was about to speak to the local General de Lafayette chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, a historically white organization whose members trace direct lineages to Revolutionary War soldiers, about the importance of black history.
“Black history is not pretty,” Booker started. The 40 white women in attendance were finishing dessert, digging into square-cut chocolate cake and clinking spoons against the sides of coffee mugs. “The foundation of this country is built on the backs of enslaved people, who came to this country uninvited and were treated as less than human.”
The group chose Booker to speak Tuesday in honor of Black History Month. She has been an adviser to the group for over a year and a half, proofreading the “Black Yankees” project that commemorates 18 black World War I veterans.
Diana Vice, the Greater Lafayette chapter regent, said she is acutely aware of her organization’s racist history. But she hasn’t allowed it to prevent her from commemorating the black Lafayette veterans whose stories have been eroded by history.
She reached out to Booker and Purdue’s Black Cultural Center director, Renee Thomas, to ensure the group was sensitive in its retelling of events. She said many of the historical documents referenced African Americans using terms that aren’t politically correct today.
“To do this project was a little intimidating for a bunch of white women trying to tell the history of African American soldiers,” Vice said.
She said she had the idea to write the book “Black Yankees” when she saw the 18 black soldiers relegated to the back of a 102-year-old book honoring Tippecanoe County’s World War I veterans.
“I thought, ‘That’s just a slap in the face,’” Vice said. “Then I found out later that other communities didn’t even put them in at all.”
“Black Yankees” tracks family lineage for the 18 soldiers and details the roles they played during the war and in the Greater Lafayette community.
One such biography was written for Leonard Inman, born in 1893, who served as a dockhand to load and unload supplies from ships. His father served as pastor at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lafayette, a historic site that several other veterans frequented during their lives.
While conducting her research, Vice found many examples of microaggressions borne of racist beliefs held in the early 20th century. Many black veterans were buried in unnamed graves upon their deaths, Inman included. Lafayette’s Spring Vale Cemetery has a section containing only African American bodies, originally designated as such due to the frequent flooding that was common to the area, Vice said.
Vice learned that African American soldiers were often not allowed to serve in combat positions, though many viewed the war as an opportunity to establish their patriotism.
“They thought they were going to come back to America from overseas and have this respect,” Vice said. “Well, they came back to the Ku Klux Klan.”
The Klan achieved prominence in Indiana during the 1920s, helping to elect a governor who identified with the group in 1924.
A quick browse of the DAR’s history will likely reference the 1939 incident when the group prevented renowned African-American singer Marian Anderson from performing in Constitution Hall — a historic building in Washington, D.C., the group still owns — on the basis of her race.
A pamphlet featuring Anderson’s face on the cover was set on every attendee’s chair at the DAR luncheon. Inside on the third page was a formal apology from the DAR.
“Our organization truly wishes that history could be rewritten, but knowing that it cannot, we are proud to note that DAR has learned from the past,” read the statement.
The organization has made progress, Vice said. In June, the New York state branch of Daughters of the American Revolution made Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly the first African-American to be part of the national governing board. Many reparations, including several Constitution Hall performances and her own postal stamp, were made to Anderson, who died in 1993.
“I am proud to say the DAR has made many efforts to rectify history,” Vice said. “The DAR is no longer a white woman’s organization.”
The local branch of the group has attempted to strengthen its relationship with Greater Lafayette’s African American community.
Vice organized for Inman’s grave in Spring Vale Cemetery to be marked with a tombstone inscribed with his name. In October, the current pastor of the Bethel AME Church presided over the naming ceremony, and Inman’s surviving relatives were flown in from Nevada to be honored.
“It was one of those moments that you go back in your memory and realize what should have happened a long time ago,” Booker said of the ceremony, “but it happened now. I didn’t have to read about that one — I was there, and I got to see it.”
Booker admitted in an interview she was perplexed when the organization reached out to her in June 2018.
“I paused, because I’m thinking, ‘I only know one DAR — which is Daughters of the American Revolution — and there should be no reason for them calling me,’” Booker said.
Booker spoke at the engagement about her upbringing in segregated Louisiana. She recalled sitting in a pediatrician’s waiting room, separated from the white children, and observing as the doctor called each one of them before seeing her.
“I’m not grateful to be in the back of anything that I should be in the front of,” Booker said, comparing her own experience to those of the 18 Lafayette veterans forced to the end-pages of the history book.
She said in an interview the fact that society still needs to be reminded why black history is important is indicative of the racism that persists today.
“(Racism) never stopped — it just would quiet for a little bit,” Booker said. “This is not new. There was never a time that I’ve ever not known that it was present because it always is.”
Though she said her approach to combating injustice focuses more on events still happening today, Booker commended the DAR members involved in the project for their passion for history. Two of the organization’s core tenets are promoting patriotism and preserving American history, according to Vice, and the idea to honor black history felt sincere to Booker.
“They didn’t do it,” Booker noted, “but this is a part of the history of the people that they represent and that they are connected to, and they felt that, ‘We are better than this.’”
Vice said she wishes to have an African-American woman run the Lafayette chapter someday.
Until then, she hopes to expand the distribution of individual copies of “Black Yankees” and eventually raise enough funds for wider publication. She mentioned another one of her goals is to create historic markers for prominent African-Americans who have contributed to Greater Lafayette’s history.
In her closing comments on Tuesday, Booker charged DAR members with a call to action.
“I would ask that you join me in saying that we’re going to be the people that change tomorrow — that we’re going to talk about black history as a part of your history as well,” Booker said to the audience. “Would you join me in that?”
“Yes,” a chorus of women replied.
But Booker wasn’t satisfied. “Are you sure?” she added.
“Yes!” they said again, this time more emphatic.
“All right,” Booker joked, “don’t make me have to come back here and talk about this again.”