Around this time, aiding slaves was considered a criminal act. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal to help slaves who had run away from their owners. In fact, any found slaves, even in free-states like Indiana, were mandated to be returned.
Not wanting to get caught, participants in the Underground Railroad used word of mouth to relay their plans. A rich oral history still exists, especially surrounding one church in particular that took part in the plight.
“There’s a lot of strong oral history in our community about it being connected to what is now Second Baptist Church. I set about to make sense out of what I was hearing,” she said.
Through her meticulous research sifting through old microfilmed newspapers and census records, Peters discovered that what was then called Clock Tower Church was known to have many ties to the abolitionist cause.
During the mid-1800s, the church allowed black members to join their congregation. Records show that the pastor there had baptized, married and buried black members. A sign in the undercroft of the church even indicates the presence of a tunnel that may have once been used as a station in the Underground Railroad.
“Those church people looked on slavery as a sin,” Peters said. “The town excused their helping because they looked on it as benevolent activity.”
Due to the lack of records, no official count exists of those who traveled through Indiana to escape the bonds of slavery. One can only speculate.
“We don’t know how many people made it through here to freedom because that never made it in the paper,” Peters said. “My estimation is that at least an average of one slave made it through New Albany during those years a day.”
Not all citizens wanted slavery abolished. Anti-black sentiment still ran rampant. Leaders like the editor of the New Albany Daily Ledger wanted slavery to continue because of the town’s economic ties to the South. Others had derogatory attitudes in general about black citizens.