Norton Seal Beautiful Indiana countryside with town in distant.

Employee & Agent Stories

Free People

How one man discovered his ancestors helped shape early African American history.

There’s no denying family history is an important part of who you are. Whether you sit down with a family member or use the world wide web to learn more about your past, there is much to be gained from knowing where you come from.

In this case, Elliot Franklin — an American Family Insurance employee — discovered something beautifully inspiring about his family history. When he put the pieces of his family’s past together, he learned that his ancestors were an integral part of the American experience: Free people.

Elliot’s discovery came through research, talking with relatives and attending a milestone family reunion last summer.

“History can feel distant, like on the pages of textbooks. But now, it has a pulse because I know my family helped shape early American history for the benefit of others,” says Elliot.

Elliot Franklin

Here’s what he learned.

In the 1840s, Elliot’s ancestors, the Weavers, left North Carolina to flee the Fugitive Slave Act, which ordered whites to arrest suspected runaway slaves. During this period, families were torn apart based on as little as a white person’s claim of “ownership.” For safety, the Weavers carried free papers.

Thirteen covered wagons carrying the Weavers and other families rolled through the Carolinas and Ohio before settling in Indiana, a free state.

The community they chose was one of 100 pre-Civil War, free black settlements and part of the Underground Railroad. Quakers had set aside fertile land for the settlement.

Originally known as the Crossroads, the area was renamed Weaver because many of its residents had that last name. Another common surname for the area was Pettiford. This name, too, would become part of Elliot’s ancestry.

The village included a general store, church, school and blacksmith shop. Members of the Weaver and Pettiford families held leadership roles, like police officer, postmaster and storekeeper.

In 1919, Elliot’s great-great-grandparents, Joseph Pettiford and Martha Weaver, asked their 17 children to return home on the third Sunday in August. Family members have done the same every year since, including the 100th Pettiford-Weaver Centennial reunion, which Elliot attended, in 2019.

While more than 300 members of the Pettiford-Weaver family caught up on Aug. 18, an exhibit dedicated to their ancestors opened the day before at the Marion Public Library museum called, Welcome to Weaver: The Legacy of Grant County’s Black Abolitionist Settlement.

The exhibit marks the 100th family reunion and traces the settlement’s historic Black abolitionist strategy to build a thriving, free, pre-Civil War farm community. The town was built to produce wealth and provide a destination for those on the road to freedom. Elliot’s cousin, Norma Johnson, who lives in Marion, attended the event.

“It was a very popular exhibit,” says June Felton, curator of the museum. “We had huge crowds coming in and we had well over 200 people present for the ribbon-cutting.”

Over the last two summers, students from Indiana Wesleyan University and Taylor University researched and organized the exhibit of the historical settlement.

Historical artifacts like Emancipation papers and a blacksmith’s tool are on display.

Elliot also remembers his grandmother singing a tune that he would later learn was about the murder of his relative, Abraham Smith.

In American history, there’s an infamous 1930 photograph of two teenagers, Abraham Smith and Thomas Shipp, lynched near the Grant County courthouse in Marion. Taken by local photographer Lawrence Beitler, this photo became the most iconic image of lynching in America and thousands of copies were sold for 50 cents each.

The photograph inspired the 1937 anti-lynching poem and song, "Strange Fruit," written by Abel Meeropol — and performed around the world by Billie Holiday.

“My grandmother sang that song to me. I was definitely emotional when I found out how the song connected my family, and me, to lynching. I had seen that picture so many times, not knowing that was one of my relatives," says Elliot.

Elliot’s ancestors persevered during a tragic time in American history, but through their adversity — through their stories — there is much to be learned. It’s stories like Elliot’s that remind us how the past can reach through time and shape the world we live in today, and why it’s so important that we do not forget the stories of those who came before us.

Thank you, Elliot, for sharing your powerful story with us!

How would you rate this article?

Related Topics: Agent and Employee Stories , Empathy