By AMANDA BEAM
— Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
NEW ALBANY — A town’s past can be a tricky thing. It’s easy to think all of New Albany’s history has been documented; every one of its stories has been written and preserved through the years. But some secrets remain as elusive now as they did when they were first whispered decades ago.
For almost 150 years, our city’s involvement in the Underground Railroad had remained such a secret. New Albany resident Pam Peters decided to change that. In her 2001 book “The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana” — she documented the journey of the slaves who sought freedom and the local men and women who risked their lives supporting them.
“I had a very naïve idea of what the Underground Railroad was until I really started studying it,” Peters said. “It was more of a movement. You have to think of it not in terms of tunnels and hiding places.”
With the Emancipation Proclamation pertaining only to Confederate states, slavery was allowed in Kentucky until the end of the Civil War. Yet only a mile away across the Ohio River, lie Indiana, a free-state since 1816. If Cincinnati had been a portal to freedom, wasn’t it likely New Albany had been a gateway as well?
Little written correspondence has survived of these clandestine activities. Peters found her first documented cases of people in New Albany being arrested for abetting slaves as early as 1821, but she assumes the practice existed long before that instance.
“As long as there has been slavery, there have been slaves running away from it,” she said.
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.
“Our whole economy hinged on Southern markets buying our steamboats here,” Peters said.
Even among white citizens who were against slavery, many still would not have participated in what they deemed criminal activity.
“For the most part, the people of New Albany, especially the church people, were upstanding citizens. They wanted to obey the laws. And so they wouldn’t stick their neck out. You didn’t want to break the laws by harboring fugitives,” Peters said.
At the end of the Civil War, racist sentiments were still all too common in New Albany. Many black people continued on their journey North in the hope of finding better opportunities.
“Slavery, maybe on paper, disappeared in Kentucky at the end of 1865, but peoples’ attitudes didn’t change. You still have that anti-black bias even with the anti-slavery people,” Peters said.
Despite the overt racism and discriminating legislation inflicted upon their community, blacks led the Underground Railroad network. Next week, we’ll discover the names of the men and women who were essential to the success of those who did escape.
“The African-American community was the key,” Peters said. “They had to work with people from the white community, too. But the African American community, let’s face it, were working under all kinds of burdens.”