NEW ALBANY — New Albany‘s history is rich regarding the Underground Railroad.
The city’s location on the river, in a free state, just a stone’s throw from a slave state, made it a prime location for enslaved people seeking freedom. On Thursday evening, the Frazier History Museum, in partnership with the Friends of the Town Clock Church and the Second Baptist Church presented an opportunity for an evening of discovery connecting archaeological digs from two countries to local history and regional ties to the Underground Railroad.
The presentation provided many interesting and unusual connections in the metro area. The primary presentation came from Karolyn Smart Frost, an archaeologist from Canada and author of “I’ve got a home in Glory Land, A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad” in which she shares the story of freedom seekers Thornton and Lucy Blackburn. Both were enslaved in Louisville and had fallen in love.
When it was discovered that Lucy was going to be sold into a life of prostitution to cover the debts of her owner, Thornton and Lucy decided to run for freedom.
They boarded a ferry through New Albany and were able to get a ticket on a riverboat to Cincinnati. From there, they traveled by stagecoach to Detroit.
They lived in Detroit in freedom for several years until a friend of their “legal owner” from Louisville saw them and reported their whereabouts. Their capture and imprisonment caused the first documented race riots and international incident when they were able to escape to Canada.
The Blackburns were successful business people in Toronto, Canada, starting the first taxi service in the city. They went on to help many other freedom-seekers settle in Canada during their lifetime. Their story is a fascinating one of twists and turns, and very connected to our metro area.
Ann Bader, principal archaeologist with Corn Island archaeology, spoke about the Beecher Terrace archaeological project in Louisville. This was a thriving Black community west of Ninth Street dating back to the 1860s after the Civil War.
She shared several stories, in particular, that of Dr. William Henry Fitz Butler, who would have known Thornton and Lucy Blackburn in Canada. He was the first Black doctor in Louisville. He started the first Black medical school, which graduated hundreds of African-American doctors during his history. His wife Sarah, became the first Black female doctor in Louisville. Both lived in what is now called Beecher Terrace. Lavel White, a long-time resident of Beecher Terrace, also spoke about the history and his documentation of the Beecher Terrace area.
Jerry Finn spoke about the Underground Railroad history of the Town Clock Church and thanked the Caesars Foundation for making this program possible through its grant program. The evening was a commemoration of the International Underground Railroad month. Programs are being sponsored across our country and others to commemorate September as International Underground Railroad Month.
Alice Miles, Chair of the Friends of the Town Clock Church Board, was excited to attend the event.
“It is so important to remember the free Black community and the Presbyterian congregation’s efforts through the Underground Railroad,” she said, “especially at a time when there seem to be those who want to rewrite American history to exclude both its dark periods and the heroes and heroines that facilitated the changes we needed both then and now.”