University of Southern Indiana

Our History

The History of Historic Southern Indiana

About the Founding Director, Dr. Darrel E. Bigham

DarrelbighamDr. Bigham, Director Emeritus of Historic Southern Indiana, retired on June 30, 2008 after 22 years of service as the founding director of Historic Southern Indiana and 38 years as a faculty member of the History Department.

From University Notes, Nov. 10, 2007

Dr. Darrel Bigham, professor of history, will see eight years of work on a federal commission begin to bear fruit in spring 2008, his last semester before retirement from USI.

In 2000, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, charged by congress with several mandates, including the creation of Lincoln-oriented stamps, a redesigned penny, and a special rededication program at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

For Bigham, who chairs the commission's education committee, retirement means he'll have more time for his commission work. "My responsibilities continue through the end of 2010, so this has been almost a full-time job and I'm glad I'll have more time to work on it," he said. The national kick-off event is in February 2008 in Louisville. Bigham joined the University in 1970. He was instrumental in the formation and serves as director of Historic Southern Indiana, a USI outreach program that promotes the historical, cultural, and natural resources of southern Indiana. "It's a program I feel very strongly about and feel we've made a significant contribution to the region," he said. "We've gotten a great deal of national attention in the past 21 years. It was one of the earliest outreach programs of the institution, and we continue to make a mark."

He has authored, co-authored, or edited 11 books, most recently On Jordan's Banks: Emancipation and its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (University Press of Kentucky, 2005). He was guest editor of the Organization of American Historians October 2007 Magazine of History focusing on Lincoln and Race.

Bigham organized or served as president of the Vanderburgh County Historical Society, the Evansville Arts and Education Council, the Metropolitan Evansville Progress Committee, the Evansville Museum, and Leadership Evansville, for which he was the first executive director.

He chaired the Evansville committee that observed the American Revolution bicentennial during 1974-1977 and the committee that organized the city's 175th anniversary celebration in 1987. He also created and for many years provided leadership for the education committee of the Rotary Club of Evansville. He organized and chaired the Indiana Council for History Education (1991-2002) and was president of the Indiana Association of Historians (1999-2000).

The Indiana Historical Society honored Bigham with its Hoosier Historian Award in 2002.

When his work with the commission ends, he plans to write, travel, and spend more time with his wife Polly at her family home in Woodstock, Vermont.

"On to Abe: Longtime History Professor Bigham Retires"

By Rich Davis
Evansville Courier & Press
July 1, 2008

When local historian Darrel Bigham cleaned out his office at the University of Southern Indiana awhile back, he carted home 60 plastic boxes — 38 years of a career well spent.

They included about 10,000 tell-me-about-yourself, 3-by-5 cards filled out by every student who ever took one of his classes. There would have been more, except Bigham, as time passed, found himself teaching fewer history classes in order to perform other duties.

Former USI President David Rice, he chuckles, was pretty good at suggesting ideas, from starting Leadership Evansville (a local leaders training ground) to founding Historic Southern Indiana, an outreach program promoting the region's history and tourism.

Along the way Bigham also started an oral history program at then-Indiana State University-Evansville, chaired Evansville's 1976 observance of the nation's Bicentennial, delved into "the African-American experience" in Evansville, researched Evansville's German heritage and helped re-energize a defunct historical society.

He wrote several books on topics ranging from race relations and the World War II homefront to a series of Ohio River-related books, and in 2001 became one of just five people appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the country's 15-member Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

"I may have been the only one who didn't campaign for the job," he quips. "I didn't know about it or try to get on." Former Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon recommended Bigham to Clinton.

Rice recalls how Bigham, a Harrisburg, Pa., native who did graduate work at the University of Kansas, mentioned while being interviewed in 1970 that Southern Indiana seemed "a gold mine of undeveloped historical resources."

"Darrel has a lot to be proud of," says Rice, noting Bigham became a key player as the university emerged from its branch campus status. Because of limited funding and resources, Rice explains, USI had to be creative in establishing its credibility and presence, whether addressing Evansville's perceived poor labor-management relations image, taking over the running of Historic New Harmony, or copying the Boston Trail idea and creating a historical sites trail in Southern Indiana.

Bigham was 27 when he and his wife, Polly, and their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter arrived at a new, 1,700-student ISUE campus.

"You probably could fit the entire faculty in this room," he laughs, seated in the living room of the couple's woodsy home where he's been reading "Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation," and feeling guilty because "for the first time since first grade in 1948 I don't have a schedule."

Ironically, one of his earliest Evansville memories may have sparked his interest in exploring the city's African-American experience, back then a relatively new field.

A prominent businessman was giving Bigham the grand tour in 1970 and proudly pointing to the new Civic Center when he added: "On the other side of that is where the colored people live, and they know their place."

"He was a nice fellow," recalls Bigham, "but I learned very soon racial values in this part of the world were very different from those I grew up with." Bigham had spent a year at Harvard Divinity School and had an internship in Boston's predominantly black Roxbury section.

At a 1972 social gathering in New Harmony, Ind., Bigham was introduced to Sol and Alberta Stevenson, a well-known couple who gave him a list of 40 other African-Americans in Evansville they recommended he talk to.

"I managed to speak to all of them within three or four years," says Bigham. Those interviews, along with research into public records and documents and an Eli Lilly grant, resulted in a series of Indiana Magazine of History articles about institutionalized racism and eventually a mid-1980s book titled "We Ask Only a Fair Trial."

In retirement, he may update that book and work on others.

In 1974, Mayor Russell Lloyd asked Bigham to chair the city's Bicentennial planning committee; Bigham insisted the panel be "more inclusive" and involve the African-American community.

The Bicentennial had its more humorous moments. Two men proposed building a fiberglass, 26-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty on the riverfront.

"I can't remember the first (committee member) to start laughing, but we said, absolutely not," Bigham recalls.

Much of his work in recent years has involved Historic Southern Indiana, which quietly promotes economic and cultural development in 26 counties.

"It links USI to the region and vice versa," he notes.

Historic Southern Indiana helped create the Ohio River Scenic Byway and facilitates projects, works with educators, and gets tourism and historic preservation people "into the same room," says Bigham. "The idea isn't to make Corydon (the state's first capital) another Colonial Williamsburg, but to promote what's authentic and indigenous. That's what attracts visitors."

Historic Southern Indiana, he adds, has helped to give the region a "sense of empowerment" and a place on the national map.

"Southern Indiana historically was an area the rest of the state tended to overlook," says Bigham. "This was because of its distance, its poverty, its sense of inferiority, its rural character ... . It had a chip on its shoulder."

Currently, Bigham is chairing the national Lincoln Bicentennial panel's education committee, encouraging schools across the country to commemorate Lincoln in all kinds of ways. He's looking forward to big events later this year in Gettysburg and next year in Washington, D.C., including an international conference on "The Global Lincoln."

"I thought I knew Lincoln. I taught the Civil War course at USI for years," says Bigham, "but I've done a lot of reading since. I read a new Lincoln book at least every two weeks."

It's amazing, he says, that a man of such humble origins in our neck of the woods, with just one year of formal education, became not only a great thinker but a greater writer and practitioner of the English language. "I'm amazed at the depth of his character."

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