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.