News and Tribune

May 1, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Race riots of July 1862

By AMANDA BEAM
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

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. 

Others weren’t nearly as lucky. Stones and clubs were used to pound random black men. Some reports indicate that white children as young as 10 participated in the carnage. Beatings weren’t the only retaliatory measure used. Houses belonging to blacks were vandalized and their gardens and other property destroyed. By the end of the 30 hours, more than 200 whites had joined the rampage and, as far as Peters can tell, at the very least three blacks had been murdered. No one knows what happened to the men who shot Lansford and Locke. Their history died along with the lives of the other causalities that following night. 

It would be easy to blame the shooting as a trigger for what ensued on that July 22 night. But let’s not kid ourselves. Even as Indiana supported the Union cause, race relations at the time along the Ohio were anything but worthy of pride. Blacks weren’t welcome by many in the state, let alone as residents of the river city with the southern business ties. In 1851, a huge majority of Hoosiers voted in favor of a law that prevented any additional black people from settling in the state, effectively criminalizing newly escaped slaves or freemen from making Indiana their home. 

Other racially charged violent acts had occurred prior to this instance and blatant discrimination was a way of life for most blacks. Just a glimpse of the Daily Ledger can give you a feel for the bigotry. 

While the brutality of the riots and the complete randomness of the attacks stand out in the newspaper accounts, so do the tales of unselfish heroism. In particular, the owner of a local boarding house, Mary Israel, sheltered a black man who had escaped the violent mob. According to Peters, she resisted their unsuccessful attempts to withdraw her boarder by barricading the doors and refusing to let in the crowd. 

More than 150 years later, an Indiana State Historical marker was erected outside the Israel House on Main Street to remember the riots and those who went above and beyond to rescue others in need.

“The fact New Albany came forward… (with) the Floyd County Historical Society sharing the cost of putting the marker up, I think that was a very important step forward for New Albany that we publicly acknowledged that this race riot happened,” Peters said. “It gave us the chance to publicly acknowledge that we have a part of our past that is very unfortunate.”

With some certainty, bravery wasn’t limited only to whites providing security to persecuted blacks during that July day. As the predominantly black sections of town were attacked, it’s extremely likely other black residents rose to help those in need. But those stories have been lost, as are so many other accounts from black Hoosiers during that difficult time. Many left the area. After this particular race riot, more than 30 black families fled across the Indiana border away from the threat of violence. 

To preserve this newfound history, the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany has dedicated a part of their permanent Underground Railroad exhibit to the race riots. Admission is free. For more information, check out carnegiecenter.org. 

“Every community has parts of its past that they don’t want to remember. Communities want their history to make them look good so they deliberately don’t pass on the unfortunate parts of the past history,” Peters said. “My goal is that it will make us more aware of the future and that we can’t let it happen again.”