Few people in Indiana know the name James Sidney Hinton, but everyone should.
Hinton was born in 1834 in North Carolina and moved to Terre Haute with his parents in 1848. There, he worked as a part-time barber while attending school. At 16, he continued his education at a local Quaker school and then enrolled in collegiate courses at the Greenville Institute in Ohio.
When the Civil War broke out, Hinton volunteered for the Union Army. He returned to Indiana in 1863, was promoted to second lieutenant and helped recruit soldiers for the Union army.
After the war, Hinton settled in Indianapolis. He became involved in many aspects of civic life and became a popular and much-requested public speaker.
He was elected as an at-large delegate to the 1872 Republican National Convention and later was appointed as trustee of Indiana’s Wabash and Erie Canal Fund, an important statewide office at the time. In 1880, Hinton reached the pinnacle of his career when he was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives.
What makes his story equal parts amazing and inspirational is that Hinton was African-American. As such, he was the first Black member of the Indiana General Assembly.
In 1986, more than 100 years after Hinton’s historic election, I walked into the Statehouse as a first time state legislator to represent my small Southern Indiana community. I was young, idealistic and ready to get to work. But I also was a little intimidated and scared.
But make no mistake: when James Hinton walked into the Statehouse as the first Black legislator in Indiana history, it was as daunting a task as any Hoosier faced.
Yes, Indiana stood with the Union to defeat slavery. Yes, Indiana, with its deep Quaker and abolitionist roots, was a major link in the Underground Railroad.
But it was still 1880, and society had not yet accepted James Hinton fully.
He faced fellow legislators, who were his legislative equal, but probably still treated him like a second-class citizen. He faced a society that had not yet fulfilled the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He could rise to address the General Assembly on the issues of the day and cast his vote like anyone else, but probably had to eat, sleep, shop and live separately.
He was alone in the Statehouse. Yet, he persevered.
At the close of Black History Month, I’m sit in awe at the sacrifices made by trailblazers like Hinton. Certainly every African-American political figure who came after him stands on his shoulders.
But even as a white male from Southern Indiana, I too, stand on James Hinton’s shoulders.
Because of James Hinton, Indiana is a fairer state. Because of James Hinton, many of my brothers and sisters were given a voice for the first time.
This is not to say that all is rosy in Indiana.
Yes, our state made history by voting for our president, and we’ve made strides that would have seemed unimaginable 100, 50 or even 25 years ago.
But we all know there is still so much work to do. So at the close of Black History Month 2012, let us recommit ourselves to realizing the dream that James Hinton set in motion for every Hoosier, and let us truly realize that we all sink or swim together. This February, let us thank the good Lord for James Hinton.
He once stood alone, but today I stand with him.
John Gregg is a former speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives and is a Democrat running for governor.