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May 1, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Race riots of July 1862

NEW ALBANY —

Powder kegs have a way of erupting with just the right spark. During the summer of 1862, embers of racial tensions flared in New Albany, igniting the city in a 30-hour uprising of violence and murder. For too long, the city had forgotten this race riot. The media back then may not have always been the most unbiased in their telling of the tale, leaving few accounts of the factual story. The aftermath of the destruction, and what precipitated it, may never really be known. 

Like a phoenix, scattered bits of truth have a habit of rising out of the charred ashes of history. Local historian Pam Peters likes to sift through the ashes. Researching her book, “The Underground Railroad in Floyd County,” the New Albany resident unearthed glimpses of what happened during that day and a half of chaos. And, what she found casts a different kind of dark shadow on the history of this Ohio River town. 

“I thought, why doesn’t our community know about this? Nobody ever talked about this or brought it up,” Peters said. “I just think it was too painful. People were embarrassed by it was my guess.”

What we do know is this: On July 21, one or more black men purportedly shot two white men named Lansford and Locke for what has been reported as retribution for shouting racial obscenities. Locke died of his wounds, but Lansford survived. One of the most widely read local papers at the time, The New Albany Daily Ledger, published an account of the crime the next day with what some consider incendiary language. Whether the initial shooting or the subsequent reporting style of the paper provided the bigger spark that lit the keg ablaze is anyone’s guess. 

Regardless, the following morning a horde of white men began to gather in downtown New Albany with the explicit aim of hurting members of the black community. Initially, two black men were found and beaten around 8 a.m., but somehow both survived. 

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