Lyles Station, Indiana is one of the last remnants of one of the earliest free African American settlements in the U.S.
Founded by freed Tennessee slave Joshua Lyles, the town’s best years were from 1880 to 1912. At its peak, there was a railroad station, a post office, a lumber mill, two general stores, two churches, an elementary school, and 55 homes in the town. After a catastrophic flood of the White, Wabash, and Patoka rivers in 1912, the town began a slow decline. Its turn-of-the-century population of 800 has dropped to about 50, nearly half descended from original settlers.
Lyles Station got its start sometime around 1840 when a benevolent Tennessee slave-owner freed two brothers named Joshua and Sanford Lyles, gave them money and urged them to seek freedom in a northern state.
They journeyed up the Tennessee River to the Ohio, and finally up theWabash River to where they stopped in far southwestern Indiana, on the border with Illinois.
The brothers walked two miles east of the Wabash and bought a chunk of government land. The brothers cleared their ground and planted crops. Eventually, they accumulated more than 1,200 acres of fertile river bottomlands.
Following the Civil War, Joshua returned to Tennessee and encouraged newly freed slaves to join him in this Indiana Garden of Eden, where cantaloupes and tomatoes grew big and plentiful in the sandy soil.Lyles Station flourished in large part because, in 1870, Joshua donated five acres to the railroad on the condition it build a train station here. The train allowed Lyles Station farmers to export their produce without making the tough, 5-mile, uphill wagon trip east into Princeton.
In 1886, a post office opened. A school started. Two grocery stores, a lumber mill, bandstand, blacksmith, and 55 homes followed. By the dawn of the 20th Century, 800 people lived and farmed in and around Lyles Station, a financially independent community.
Slowly the population began to wander off in search of steady paychecks in places like Chicago and Detroit. Many left after the flood rather than rebuild, taking it as a sign to move on for other opportunities. But Lyles Station lives on yet today, though it is no longer vibrant, and is well off the beaten path.
But I think the real story that needs to be told about Lyles Station began in 1927. The parents of 10 children at the local elementary school were approached by county hospital officials. The parents were told that there was a new experimental treatment for dermatophytosis, a fungal infection commonly known as “ringworm.” What the parents didn’t know was that the children were actually part of a human experiment on extreme radiation, probably chosen because they lived in such an isolated location, and probably because they were all black. The children were exposed to high levels and many were left with disfiguring scalp scars and head trauma.
The effects of the experiments were mostly hidden from the townspeople of Lyles Station. Many of the children wore wigs and hats to cover up the results of the experiments.
Vertus Hardiman, one of the children, who was five years old at the time, finally broke his silence more than 70 years later, to a friend, Wilbert Smith, who partnered with Brett Leonard to produce the documentary, “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed.” The 2011 film is the amazing story of Hardiman and the nine other children who were affected by the horrible experiment in Lyles Station.
Hardiman was physically affected the worst by the radiation. As a result he experienced a slow dissolving of the bone matter of his skull for the rest of his life. The ensuing deformed head and gaping hole at its top were disguised by a succession of hats, toupees, and wigs. Every day of his life he spent an hour changing bandages and dressing the wound. Through research, the film producers located four other remaining survivors of the Lyles Station experiments.
Hardiman nonetheless led a full and productive life, graduating from high school with the highest honors. In 1945 he moved to California where he worked as a hospital orderly for over forty years. He was honored at his retirement, not just for the long years of service, but also because in all those years he never missed one day of work.
He became a homeowner early on after moving to the coast, and dabbled in real estate on the side, eventually amassing a personal fortune in excess of $8 million.
Hardiman died in 2007 at the age of 85 without ever seeing his remarkable story told on the screen.
“Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed” was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Award at the 2011 Pan African Film Festival. A trailer for the film can be seen below.