Historians Joe Skvarenina and Linda Dunn stand in front of the Hancock County prosecutor’s building, which was the county jail in 1875 when a mob entered and abducted William Keemer. Skvarenina and Dunn were instrumental in winning approval for the new historical marker. Staff photo by Tom Russo
Historians Joe Skvarenina and Linda Dunn stand in front of the Hancock County prosecutor’s building, which was the county jail in 1875 when a mob entered and abducted William Keemer. Skvarenina and Dunn were instrumental in winning approval for the new historical marker. Staff photo by Tom Russo
GREENFIELD — Cheryl Armstrong was always interested in her family’s history; she knew she came from a long line of free African-Americans who helped form a community in central Indiana, and that many in her family were successful professionals.

What she didn’t know was that her family tree included William Keemer, a Black man who was lynched in Hancock County in 1875 by a mob while a crowd watched. When she found out, it changed how she viewed the Keemer family legacy of success.

“There was that drive, and I don’t know whether the drive came from the shame of the lynching and that horrible feeling,” Armstrong said.

Now, a historical marker in memory of William Keemer’s lynching has been approved by the Indiana Historical Bureau. Armstrong and other Keemer descendants are planning to make the journey to Indiana for the eventual unveiling.

Joe Skvarenina, one of two local historians who led the effort to put up the marker, said the Indiana Historical Bureau approved 17 of the 34 applications for new markers it was reviewing, one of which memorializes another lynching. He said the bureau clearly signified that the effect of a lynching on a community met the criteria of historical notability.

“I think it’s a good history lesson and it rectifies some of the tragedy of the past,” Skvarenina said.

William Keemer was accused by a white Charlottesville man of sexually assaulting the man’s wife. According to the historical record, Keemer stopped at the woman’s home in the Charlottesville area to ask for a glass of water on his way back from a journey to Indianapolis. He was arrested in Rush County but was transferred to the Hancock County Jail because threats of a lynching were spreading among white residents.

A mob formed at the Hancock County jail anyway and removed Keemer from his cell. He was taken to the county’s fairgrounds at the time, near the site of the present-day Hawk’s Tail Golf Course, where a crowd of people watched as he was hanged and died. None of the white men involved in Keemer’s killing were ever identified, much less prosecuted.

Linda Dunn, the other historian involved in the effort, said she was happy and relieved to see the application was approved.

“I think this is a long time coming,” Dunn said, adding that she thought something should have been done years ago to recognize Keemer’s murder.

The marker tentatively will be placed along U.S. 40 near the site where Keemer was buried. The area is at the county farm, where a pauper cemetery was located. The bodies of indigent people who died in the county at the time were buried there; the bodies were never moved and remain buried in an overgrown field. It’s also the parcel where the new county jail is being built.

Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart said he supports the idea of putting up a historical marker about the lynching, but doesn’t think the highway outside the new jail building is the right place for it.

“That’s a dark cloud over Hancock County’s history, but it’s history. It’s something that took place,” he said.

Burkhart said he thought a better location for the marker would be outside of the current prosecutor’s building, located across from the Hancock County Courthouse on American Legion Place. The building started its life as a jail as well, and is where Keemer was held and abducted just a year after its construction.

Skvarenina and Dunn considered the prosecutor’s building as a possible location for the marker but said they rejected the idea because of its uncertain future. The prosecutor’s office is likely moving out of the building in the near future because of the poor condition of its interior, and the county hopes to sell it, perhaps to a group interested in historical conservation.

Burkhart said he isn’t sure what message it would send to place the marker near the entrance of the new jail.

“To me, it sends a bad message as to what the jail is,” he said. “...It just seems like it’s just bad timing with what’s going on in this country.”

Family history

William Keemer, who died at age 23, didn’t have any direct descendants. However, his brother’s family initially remained in the area.

Armstrong, who now lives in Colorado, is the great-granddaughter of James Keemer Jr., William Keemer’s brother. As a teenager, she was interested in genealogy and family history, and read some records her aunt, Mable Keemer, had kept from a visit back to the Hancock County area.

Mable Keemer had interviewed several area residents who were alive at the time of the lynching about their memories of the event. For Armstrong, it was the first she’d heard of it in her family’s history.

Learning about William Keemer’s lynching, Armstrong said, changed the way she looked at her family’s legacy.

“I was ashamed and embarrassed and shocked, and I was very angry,” she said.

As Armstrong further researched her family history, she learned more about the Beech Settlement in Rush County that was established in the late 1820s, a pioneer community that was established by Quakers and free Black people. It was a community that, for its time, was integrated and relatively free of racial persecution.

But as more white settlers came to the area, that changed, and the lynching of William Keemer changed it forever.

“It was a horrible thing for that community, because everyone had lived in harmony,” she said.

Despite that experience in his early life, William Keemer’s nephew Edgar Keemer became a prominent citizen in Rush County. When he graduated as the valedictorian of Knightstown in the 1890s, one the few Black students, he gave his address on the topic of lynching.

According to an article Armstrong and her daughter, Jasmine Armstrong, wrote on their family’s history, Edgar Keemer went on to become one of the few Black students at Indiana University’s medical school and got a degree as a pharmacist. He returned to Knightstown to open a pharmacy in his hometown.

Armstrong said the Great Depression, Jim Crow laws and the growth of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan would eventually motivate the Keemer family to move out of Indiana.

Armstrong said the Keemer side of her family always highly prioritized education and obtaining degrees, and the family tree is heavy with doctors and lawyers.

“There was an inherent and very passionate push to succeed,” Armstrong said.

Edgar Keemer was one of the primary drivers of that legacy. He impressed upon his children and grandchildren, Armstrong said, the need to succeed in education and be the best at what they did.

Dunn contacted descendants of the Keemer family through the genealogy website Ancestry. com and invited them to come to Greenfield for the eventual unveiling of the marker.

Armstrong said she was “thrilled” to hear from Dunn and was excited about the idea of a historical marker that would tell the story of what happened to William Keemer at the hands of the area’s white residents. She and several other descendants hope to visit Hancock County when the marker is erected. She thinks the story is one that needs to be told, both in the history of her family and of central Indiana.

“I am very proud of the family and what we accomplished,” she said.
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