NEW ALBANY — New Albany resident Pam Peters literally wrote the book on the local history of our city’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. Her 2001 work, “The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana” documented her search and the identities of this important time’s unknown heroes.
In last week’s column, readers learned about the basics of the Underground Railroad in this area. But it was the people who made the movement so successful, especially the black community.
The oral history that still reverberates through the halls of the now Second Baptist Church only offers a whisper of the story. Years and years of extensive review of microfilmed newspapers and census records provided the proof Peters needed of New Albany’s involvement in the movement. In her research, she found numerous reports of people prosecuted for hiding or transporting freedom seekers.
“People tend to think of the Underground Railroad as this complicated system of people reaching out saying ‘look, here we are, come and find us.’ It couldn’t have happened without the slave running first and having the guts to do it. People forget about that,” Peters said. “The key to the Underground Railroad is the slave choosing to run and then the African American people sticking their nose out and be willing to lose their life, lose their savings.”
Besides physically participating in the escapes, the black community also supported the cause by keeping the secret. At this time, blacks lived predominantly in the West Union section of town, the area near Floyd Memorial Hospital and Health Services. This isolation and the sheer number of having so many free blacks in one space helped hide escaped slaves more easily.
“The black community as a whole looked the other way. They knew if somebody got across the river and was hiding in the community. They knew they were a stranger. And they probably knew often that these were runaway slaves looking for a safe way to get out of town. They just didn’t turn them in,” Peters said.
In the newspapers, she found heroes whose names had been lost to the ages; like Sarah Ann Lucas, a free woman who stood up for a slave named Amanda in court and swore the woman was free. Something went wrong, and the lie was discovered.
Other articles tell of Moses Bard, a New Albany barber, and local boatman Shadrach Henderson who were implicated in transporting and hiding two slaves. After the initial report detailing their crimes and sentences, Peters could find no other mention of the two men’s fate.
Accomplished black businessmen like George Washington Carter also can be tied to the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t unusual for free black men with money to purchase slaves at auctions in Louisville, only to then liberate them. Carter, too, was charged in the above crime, but Peters said she believed that since he was affluent, the courts let him off with only a fine.
Carter had ties to many in the community, but he especially kept black boatman in his inner circle. Although people used the steamboat industry as a justification for the continuance of slavery, this very institution also gave an escape mechanism for those fleeing its grasps. Some hid in the ships boughs, while boating itself taught critical skills that increased the likelihood of a successful crossing.
“One of the keys to the Underground Railroad here was that so many of the African American young men worked on the river. They knew the river. They had contact with slaves and free people,” Peters said.
In addition, she discovered a web linking the popular barber and land owner to other known abolitionist. Three of his children went to school in Canada, giving him ample reasons to make the trek to the country perhaps with a few passengers. As a barber, he was known to have cut the hair of white members of the Town Clock Church, allowing for messages to be easily relayed.
“There was this web going on in the black community,” Peters said. “There is no story written down that was connected with that. You just have to (research) it.”
While her investigation about the many different facets of the Underground Railroad continues, Peters said there are things that remain undiscovered.
“I spent years and years studying microfilm and reading the old court records looking for information,” she said. “And there's more that can still be done.”