01 Mar Eva Stewart: NHS’s First African American Graduate
Eva Stewart: NHS’s First African American Graduate
By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
Since we are right between Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it’s worth looking at an African American woman who was important to the history of Noblesville. Eva Stewart was the first African American person to graduate from Noblesville High School and, more importantly, she did this 130 years ago.
She wasn’t the first one to attend the high school. The first African American students to be admitted had passed their examinations in May of 1880 – Alice Wallace, America Dempsey, and Susie Evans. They started in the 1881-1882 school year, but weren’t able to graduate for various reasons, including illness and marriage.
The African American students had come from the separate “Colored School” in Noblesville that was established in 1869. This school lasted until May of 1890, when it was dissolved by the school board. The Ledger reported on May 2nd, “The colored school of Noblesville is a thing of the past. At a meeting of the Board last night it was decided to abolish it and place the pupils in the city schools proper, where they of right belong.”
Eva Stewart was born in 1869. Her father was Woodward Stewart, a former slave who came north and, though hard work and skill, had become a well-to-do farmer. The family home was on Federal Hill and Stewart eventually owned around 200 acres. Part of his land is now the entrance to South Harbor. Woodward was respected in the community – enough so that he was appointed to the county Grand Jury in 1883. He was wealthy enough to afford to buy a parlor organ for the family in 1885.
Eva started high school in the 1884-1885 school year and had a grade of 97.3 in March. Her first appearance on the High School Honor Roll was in January of 1886 and her name appears frequently after that. She graduated with the Class of 1888, who held their commencement at the Methodist Church in May. There were ten graduates and the ceremony consisted each of them giving a speech. Eva spoke about the motto chosen by the class – “No One Is Wise Alone”. This suggests that she may have been the person who proposed it. The Ledger reported afterwards, “In the production and recitation, she was the peer of any member of her class and reflected honor on her race.”
While news articles at the time were complimentary to Eva, they usually viewed her solely in relation to her being African American. Later in May of 1888, The Ledger did a short article about race relations in Noblesville. (It was actually a political statement about the Republican Party being the party that supported civil rights.) It proudly pointed out that a Black man named Willis Venable had been elected Justice of the Peace and Eva Stewart had graduated with the highest honors, saying, “Miss Stewart is the peer of any graduate the school has ever produced.”
Eva was hired to teach at the “Colored School” in June of 1889 and taught through the 1889-1890 school year. As I mentioned before, the school was abolished in 1890, which would have left her in an unclear position. However, her mother died in July of 1890 and Eva took over running the Stewart household for her father. This was not difficult work and she had time to socialize. She visited Greencastle and Terre Haute with friends in June of 1891 and visited Kokomo in October. She may have also been looking for potential teaching work.
It would have been interesting to see where her life might have taken her. Sadly, she contracted pneumonia in early 1892 and died on March 4. She is buried at Crownland Cemetery in the Stewart family plot. Her father and brother expressed their bereavement in notices in the papers. Her obituary in the Hamilton County Democrat said, “It’s sad indeed to entertain the thought that one of such standing and possessed of such a bright intellect as Eva was the proud possessor of, should be hurried from this world so quick.” One of her teachers, U. B. McKinsey, wrote a column in the Ledger saying, “She entered our public schools under the disadvantages which are usual to the colored people, but by her untiring efforts she rose to the highest honors of her class. … As her former teacher, I have the kindest regards for her friends and ask them to imitate her noble example.”