By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Contrary to popular belief, the Underground Railroad in Floyd County was not led by white abolitionists. It was driven mainly by a vibrant, rooted and well-connected African American community in New Albany, Louisville and Floyds Knobs, with the assistance of anti-slavery whites, including people of faith and German immigrants, many of whom had themselves fled oppression in Central Europe.
The documentation of this community and other myth-busting revelations emerge from the book, The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana, by local historian Pamela Peters, first published in 2001.
To help IU Southeast celebrate Black History Month, Peters will be speaking on her journey in researching this little-understood aspect of Southern Indiana history on Tues., Feb. 21 from 12:20-1:10 p.m. in Crestview Hall, Room 105.
Her visit is hosted by Dr. Elizabeth Gritter, assistant professor of history and director of the IU Southeast Institute for Local and Oral History, and the Office of Campus Life. This event is part of the Institute’s speaker series that brings local researchers to campus to discuss their work. It is open to students, staff, and faculty.
“By speaking about how she has gone about researching African American history in Floyd County, Peters promises to not only enlighten the audience about black history in New Albany but also about historical research skills,” Gritter said.
Peters first came to the area in 1976. She had an interest in Civil War history, and immersed herself in the complex local heritage of that time.
Before and during the war, Indiana was a free state while Kentucky was allowed to remain a slave state until the end of hostilities in 1865, despite its role in the Union and occupation by Union troops during the final years of the conflict. Over half of the households in Louisville owned slaves, and one of the largest slave markets in the country was located here. It is estimated that between 2500 and 4000 slaves from Kentucky and elsewhere were exported to other states via Louisville. This complexity intrigued Peters.
“I wondered about the complications involved in a free state bordering a slave state,” Peters said.
As she delved into newspapers, correspondence and legal documents of the time, she began to discern the complicated contours of a region whose white civic leaders were divided over the issue of slavery. Virulently pro-slavery attitudes were articulated in the New Albany Daily Ledger, while anti-slavery ideals could be found in the congregations of Protestant churches, parts of the local judiciary and elsewhere.
As uncovered by Peters, the African American population played an important role in the commercial and social life along the river, and also in the underground railroad. Census records studied by Peters opened a window onto the African American experience in New Albany, and onto the workings of the networks used to help slaves to freedom. She quickly shifted her focus from tunnels and buildings to these communities.
“I realized that the underground railroad was a living thing that breathed and flowed and took on various personalities and dimensions, because it was people,” Peters said. “People searching for freedom and people who already had it, reaching out to help seekers obtain it.”
According to Peters, whites and African Americans worked “hand in hand” to bring slaves across the river and assist them on their way into the Knobs and beyond.
A book of indentured servant records supplied Peters with evidence that many slaves had made their way to freedom via the courts.
“Free people on the Indiana side of the river were purchasing family members and friends still held in bondage and setting them free,” Peters said.
Gritter first worked with Peters on the Floyd County Oral History Bicentennial Project, developed to capture the past and present experiences of Floyd County residents for the Indiana Bicentennial. Peters contributed an oral history recording on her work. Though not a bedrock of her research, oral history has helped Peters
“The oral tradition is extremely important,” Peters said. “If not for the oral tradition in New Albany, I never would have looked into the records to find documentation.”
The Institute for Local and Oral History presents “Researching African American History in Floyd County” by local historian Pam Peters. The event will take place on Tues., Feb. 21 from 12:20-1:10 p.m. in Crestview Hall, Room 105. For more information, contact Dr. Elizabeth Gritter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homepage Photo: Downtown New Albany scene with Second Baptist Church clocktower, an important symbol of the underground railroad in Southern Indiana.