Hidden History: Curator highlights Allen County’s African-American pioneers in online database

Black History Month

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Black History Month is a perfect time to learn about the African-American men and women who took bold chances to make their marks on Northeast Indiana. In the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center, one woman took it upon herself to make sure these stories are heard and embraced every day of the year… and from anywhere.

Marsha Smiley is the curator of the online database, Crossing Opportunity’s Threshold. The idea came to her as an expression of when dreams are fulfilled.

“A lot of us have dreams and when I was a kid some of the parents that talked to me, they would say their dreams were kind of squashed because they were African-American,” she explained.

For generations, African-Americans in Allen County looked upon a closed gateway wondering what opportunities lay on the other side. They longed for more. Smiley’s website unveils the hidden stories of those who dared to cross through the gateway first.

“I just want people to realize and see that we are just as diverse as any other group and we have just as many distinctive people making a difference in this community,” she continued. “Because that’s what people have to realize is what black people do has affected all people.”

On Crossing Opportunity’s Threshold, you can meet the judges, nurses, superintendents, and sports agents who not only served the community passionately, but blazed trails for future generations of African Americans.

There are currently 55 people profiled on the site. One of those is Fort Wayne Police Department Deputy Chief Garry Hamilton, who became Fort Wayne’s first African-American Police Chief in 2014. He calls the historical moment powerful.

“I was a young man who grew up in the inner city, who lived on the streets” Hamilton said. “I was out here. This is my community and to say now if he can become chief of police as an African-American male, I can do the same thing. I can become anything. I can be a doctor or a lawyer. I don’t have to settle to let my environment decide who I am or what I’m going to be.”

Then you can dive into the life of Fort Wayne’s first African-American TV personality, Fran Grant, who Smiley calls a personal hero.

“When I was just a kid, I would see her on TV,” Smiley said. “You don’t know how significant that was.”

Grant, then known as Fran Walker, became WPTA’s first black employee in the 1960’s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. She was hired as a receptionist, but a new general manager wanted her to do more.

“I told him if you don’t like me out here – i was sassy then – make me a star and he said okay I’ll do just that,” she explained with a touch of that sass from her younger days.

After presenting the community on-air calendar for a short time, the GM gave Grant her own program, the Fran Walker Show.

“As he called me, ‘you are a gutsy broad,'” Grant recalled. “He was gutsy to make that move, too, and he got a lot of flack for that move.”

She says dealing with a whole new career was challenging enough, not to speak of the inside politics and racist aggressions towards her.

“If I had given up, I would just be giving in to the pressure and I wasn’t going to give in to the pressure,” she said. “He gave me the opportunity and I snatched it.”

Grant and Hamilton’s stories are like many you can experience on Crossing Opportunity’s Threshold, celebrating a history of local African-Americans that belongs to all Americans.

“Know that we as black people have given a big contribution to this society and all of us need to know more about it, because then we move to our common humanity and can really respect each other,” Smiley said.

While on Crossing Opportunity’s Threshold, there’s one African-American trailblazer you’ll no doubt recognize: NewsChannel 15’s Terra Brantley, the longest serving African-American news anchor in the state of Indiana.

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