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Black History Month: Secrets taken to the grave

“It means so much to me to know these things. I just feel really blessed to come from such a legacy,”
Have you ever been to someone's funeral and been surprised by some of the details in the eulogy? WAFF's Liz Hurley reports in this Black History Month feature.
Published: Feb. 21, 2022 at 7:51 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 21, 2022 at 12:49 PM CST
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Have you ever been to a funeral and were surprised by the amazing accomplishments or activities the dearly departed participated in that they never shared and you didn’t know about?

Sometimes that information eventually comes out as was the case for India Leslie Herndon.

A fearless woman

India Herndon was born in Huntsville in 1890 and was the granddaughter of freed slaves. She was an educated, affluent Black businesswoman who worked as a teacher. But when she died, she took some secrets with her to the grave.

This important information India never shared with her grandson and namesake, Herndon Spillman, with whom she shared her home.

“I have no idea about this. This was never discussed in the house,” Herndon Spillman said.

Those secrets were her work on voting and civil rights that have now been unearthed from local researchers, including Executive Director of the Historic Huntsville Foundation Donna Castellano.

“I think it’s a story of courage,” Castellano said.

She planned to erect a commemorative plaque to presumably local white suffragists on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment.

“Alabama had more white women who voted than any other state in the south,” according to Castellano.

However, the 19th Amendment gave all women the right to vote, not just white women. That includes India Herndon.

She was one of 200 Black women in the state and one of only six in Madison County to be approved to vote that first year. However, she never shared that with her family. This stunned her family after years of not knowing.

“This was a shocker,” Herndon Spillman said.

India Herndon would have walked two blocks from her home to the Madison County Courthouse, gone up the steps and pray she wouldn’t be turned away.

“She would have had to have the $1.50 in poll tax. She would have had to have had proof that she owned $300 worth of property or that they could pay taxes on $300 worth of real estate. She would have had to have been able to read and write to the satisfaction of the registrar’s and probably proof of residency,” Donna

Her having the courage to just go up and try to vote as a Black woman was scary enough, according to India’s great-granddaughter Katie Spillman. To actually cast a ballot was a huge accomplishment.

“I’ve seen it in my head. It’s hard to talk about just because I can’t imagine the fear of that because she showed up and she was lucky in the sense that it didn’t cost her her life or a member of her family’s life,” Katie Spillman said.

Family secrets

India lived to almost see 100 and her lovely home was just a stone’s throw away from Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville on a road now known as Fountain Row but it used to be Oak Avenue.

Even with the street name change, the road still resembles the neighborhood where she once lived. The large oaks lining the streets still cascade shade in the same spots that they used to and her neighbor’s homes are also still there. Unfortunately, her home at 515 is gone but not before it became an antique store, a restaurant and a safe haven.

India’s other big family secret? She’s listed in the famous Green Book as a travel host.

She offered a home away from home to Black people traveling through or looking for work here back in the 1960s.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything about this. I know the layout of the house, you know because I lived there,” Herndon Spillman said

Castellano says India probably kept it a secret to her family by making up excuses as to why so many people were coming and going at the home.

“It’s possible there were people in the neighborhood who knew. It’s possible that what she told her family these were just visitors coming in and so they saw her cooking breakfast and thought she sure in a hospitable woman today. I don’t know how she kept that secret,” she said.

While her close friends and church family may have known about her quiet activism, India’s blood family never did. Until now.

“It means so much to me to know these things. I just feel really blessed to come from such a legacy,” Katie Spillman said.

“She had privileges that other Black people did not have and I think that I would just assume, made her feel a real sense of responsibility,” said Leslie-Claire Spillman, India’s great-granddaughter.

Now, there are no more secrets. India and five other women are now recognized for their bravery with a plaque that stands in a park on the grounds of the old Council School, the same school she learned to read and write. Those skills she needed to cast her first ballot.

India died at the age of 99 after making several small but deliberate strides in civil rights. Accomplishments that are now, safe to share.

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