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By Pamela R. Peters
Pamela R. Peters, author of The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana gave this speech at the Borderlands Conference III held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati on September 16, 2004.
Originally published in Black History News & Notes, May 2005, Number 100, a quarterly publication of the Indiana Historical Society Library, reprinted here by permission, and also available on the Indiana Historical Society's Web site.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this evening. In keeping with the theme of this conference, that is, sharing our stories about the Underground Railroad movement, I would like to tell you about the journey I have been on which culminated in my book, The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana. A DVD is being produced as part of a permanent Underground Railroad exhibit in New Albany, Indiana. New Albany is the county seat of Floyd County which stretches a length of thirteen miles directly across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky.
The journey I’ve been on has taken me along quite a path. It sprang from a girlhood curiosity about the Underground Railroad and a very limited and shallow understanding of its meaning to a broader and deeper sense of what it was. I suppose I could say that my journey began in the summer of 1976 when my husband and I and our three children moved to New Albany. Having an interest in Civil War history, I wondered about the complications involved in a free state bordering a slave state. At that time my questions were very basic: Where did runaway slaves go once they reached Indiana soil? Since Indiana was free soil, why did they have to hide? Why did they leave Floyd County? How did they leave the area, and who helped them?
Little by little my journey took me into research. My search for answers can be described in four phases:
Phase I: Getting Started
In the 1970s and 1980s my research began by talking to various people who I believed were "in the know" on the history of our community. When asked what they knew about the local Underground Railroad movement, the standard answers I got were: "No one knows," "Nothing was written down," or "Information about runaway slaves coming through New Albany has been lost." I heard from people who knew of "Underground Railroad tunnels" that existed in various buildings, all running in the direction of the river. Or, another answer I got from a local historian was, "Runaway slaves could not have come through here because we were too ‘southern’ in our attitude. Our local economy relied on the steamboat industry selling boats to the southern market, so slaves would not have gotten any help from citizens here." "But then," the historian added "I’ve never been interested enough to look into it." I believe that attitude was representative of our community. But I was not satisfied with these answers, and so I moved into what I call Phase II.
Phase II: The Old Newspapers
In 1984 the article entitled "Escape from Slavery: The Underground Railroad," by Charles L. Blockson appeared in the National Geographic magazine. I told my husband, "Look, it happened in Ohio and in other places in southern Indiana, it must have happened here."
Finally, by 1995, I was able to retire from full-time work and the interesting part of my journey began. I was scheduled to give a talk on the Underground Railroad to a local study club because they knew I was interested in the topic. In preparation for it, I unearthed a few Works Progress Administration (WPA) reports in our library that were quite general in nature and had more to do with speculation about how slaves crossed the river than they did about real incidents. And there were William Cockrum’s books on the shelf: History of the Underground Railroad and Pioneer History of Indiana, neither of which satisfied my desire to learn more. When one is starting from zero, where does one begin? Floyd County is fortunate to have a good run of local newspapers beginning with the late 1840s. I thought to myself, if police reports appear in our newspapers today, maybe the antebellum papers reported runaway slave captures, or arrests made of people who helped them. So beginning in the fall 1995, and for the next four years, I put everything else in my life aside and began the long process of reading microfilm. I was so determined and so confident I would find something hidden in those newspaper pages that I did not get discouraged when I went for weeks without finding anything. Reading the newspapers immersed me in our local antebellum community. I did not realize it at the time, but reading those papers laid the groundwork for my study. I learned about attitudes of the time. As Henry Ellis Cheaney put it, "The New Albany Daily Ledger was one of the most irreconcilable newspapers in the state of Indiana on any issue involving blacks." The Ledger was the voice of the Democrat Party; the Whig-Republican Party basically had no voice in our community during the 1850s and 1860s. And I began to realize how the Ledger adversely shaped attitudes in our community – attitudes that remain today.
As I read, I found small news items such as this one in 1851, "Two fugitive slaves were arrested in the knobs adjoining New Albany one day last week, and taken back to Kentucky, whence they came." There was a lot in the 1840s and early 1850s about colonization and a report of Calvin Fairbanks’s trial in a Jefferson County, Kentucky, criminal court for stealing slaves and his ultimate sentencing to fifteen years in the penitentiary. But still, nothing clicked. Then I entered what I call Phase III.
Phase III Census Records and Official Documents
One day I was reading an editorial by John B. Norman, the notorious editor of the New Albany Daily Ledger, and I came upon this sentence, "If the residents of West Union would stop harboring people who are not supposed to be there, we would all get along peaceably and well." (West Union, north of New Albany’s downtown, was where most African Americans lived.) Bells rang, whistles blew!! It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes. I had been looking in the wrong direction. Coming out of a white community, I was thinking "white." The key to helping freedom seekers through our area was the free African American community. All of a sudden I was propelled in a new direction. I had to get to know the antebellum African American people of our county. I temporarily stopped reading the newspapers and started pulling out all names and information about Floyd County blacks from our census records. From the census records I learned that over a quarter of our county’s black population during the antebellum and Civil War years worked in various capacities on the river and that many more were draymen and drivers of wagons and omnibuses that gave them access to Louisville via the ferries. I found out not only occupations but also who were neighbors to whom, names of nonfamily members living in households, the value of their real estate, where they were born, and whether they could read and write. I learned that there were several small, isolated communities of black farmers in the Knobs outside of New Albany which explained a sentence I had read in a WPA report that runaway slaves hid with friends out in the Knobs. From the census records I learned that Rev. Byrd Parker lived in New Albany in the 1850s. He was the preacher at Quinn Chapel in Louisville who had contact with Calvin Fairbanks and leaders in the Louisville free black community. Later Parker was a distributor of the Frederick Douglass paper. I began networking with researchers in the Louisville metro area, namely Pen Bogert at the Filson Historical Society and Blaine Hudson at the University of Louisville. We were able to make connections between African Americans living on either side of the river such as William Harding of New Albany who was a steward on the riverboats and who knew black musicians from Louisville performing on the boats. He was well acquainted with musician James R. Cunningham, a free black living in Louisville, actively involved in helping freedom seekers.
By now I knew these antebellum blacks and their families, and I felt one with them. I shed tears of sorrow when I would see their names written in faded ink in the various records after learning about the Indiana Exclusion Act of 1851 which forbade blacks not able to prove residency from crossing over into the state. Their familiar names helped me as I read property records in the recorder’s office and pulled out all names from marriage, death, and burial records.
Then, I had a serendipitous experience that I will never forget. In the process of studying records at the city-county building I discovered approximately one hundred freedom and manumission papers hidden in between the pages of a dust-covered book entitled "Indentured Servant Records." At that moment of discovery, I believed and still believe, that I had found a piece of the Underground Railroad puzzle in our river town. A way to get safely across the river and into Indiana was by using the court system. Free people on the Indiana side of the river were purchasing family members and friends still held in bondage and setting them free. Others were coming across through the dispensation of owner’s wills, etc. And Judge Jared Jocelyn of the court of common pleas, was signing their freedom papers, even though many of these people came through after the Exclusion Act of 1851, making him and his actions very unpopular in the community.
Finally, through familiarity with family names, I became acquainted with the present African American community in Floyd County and found that many are descendants of those early black settlers. The support they have given me has been very important for this project.
So much started opening up to me that I was overwhelmed. A web of names began to develop and connect with each other. This web involved the New School Presbyterian community (which was primarily white but also had black members), German immigrants, as well as Universalists and Methodists. Union soldiers serving in Kentucky became a part of this Underground Railroad web because they were writing out passes for slaves who in turn used them to cross into New Albany on the ferry boats. Of course, the key to it all was the African American community. They knew the river and had contact with free blacks in Louisville. "Blending in" was the chief hiding place of the freedom seeker. Having knowledge of their presence but choosing to "look the other way" was often the part played out by the black community in New Albany.
So, my otherwise narrow perception of the Underground Railroad was expanding. I realized the Underground Railroad was a living thing that breathed and flowed and took on various personalities and dimensions because it was people—people searching for freedom, and people who already had it reaching out to help seekers obtain it.
Today I am still in Phase III, still learning, but I have also moved on to Phase IV.
Phase IV Getting the Word Out
By 1999 I had produced a document as a result of an Indiana Humanities research grant given to the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany. I knew I had to share my research with a larger audience. I looked in Publishers Trade List Annual for a fit. I immediately found McFarland Publishing Company that publishes nonfiction, encyclopedias, and histories. I contacted them, sent off my document which was approved for publication with the stipulation that I needed to lengthen it, and by the fall of 2001 my book was published.
Other related things have occurred. Floyd County has been accepted into the National Park Network to Freedom Program, and I am an active participant in Indiana Freedom Trails (an organization that looks at Underground Railroad activity in the state). We now have a state historical marker near the river commemorating the freedom seekers who came through our city as well as those who helped them. A play was written and produced by Indiana University Southeast professor, Linda Brengle, based on my research. A brochure has been produced, and we are working hard on raising funds to complete the DVD.
In closing, I want to itemize some of the myths I found to be active in our community. I wonder if you can identify with any of them:
Myth 1 All information about the Underground Railroad in Floyd County has been lost and is no longer available. Obviously, that is not the case.
Myth 2 White people played a more prominent role in the Underground Railroad in Floyd County than did African Americans. Indeed a myth. They worked together, hand in hand, but the African American people were the key and the whites could not have functioned without that cooperation.
Myth 3 The Underground Railroad in Floyd County was highly organized and tunnels were a major factor in the escape routes. I wasted a great deal of my research time attempting to follow up on those kind of leads. Most of them turned out to be dry cisterns, signs of prohibition activity, wine and food storage places or storm sewers. As my philosopher husband wisely put it You don’t have a case for tunnels, you don’t have a case against tunnels; therefore, you don’t have a case.
Myth 4 In identifying information about the Underground Railroad in Floyd County, sites and buildings used by runaway slaves are more important than the people who assisted them. This is a common belief, but I did not discover the richness of the Underground Railroad movement until I stopped focusing on structures and began studying people.
Myth 5 Freedom seekers could not safely make it through Floyd County without help. This is indeed false as we know many slaves came through using their own ingenuity rather than relying on others.
If you find yourself at the beginning of your research journey, be patient, persevere, be willing to put other things aside, and immerse yourself in the antebellum history of your community. If you have passed through that stage and have accomplished great things in your search, be thankful you have been able to make discoveries in an extremely difficult area of America’s past.
Pamela R. Peters, author of The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana gave this
speech at the Borderlands Conference III held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati on September 16, 2004.