The other day, a man told Pamela Peters, author of The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana (McFarland and Company, 2001), that he had made a discovery of great historical importance. He had found a caved-in ditch in the Southern Indiana area of Washington County. Surely this must have been the site of the legendary below-ground railway that whisked escaping slaves Northward to freedom.
Pamela Peters, author of 'The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana': "We have way over-stated what white people in Indiana did [in the underground railroad], and way under-estimated what free black people did, at great risk to themselves." Roderick Bohannan (above), president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP, says such historical oversights are too common.
Wilma Gibbs, program archivist for African-American history with the Indiana Historical Society, once had a teacher call wanting to arrange for her students to ride the historic railway. Peters, Gibbs and other Hoosiers who have studied the underground railroad routinely hear from people who are convinced that their homes built as late as the 1900s were a stop on the railroad.
As apparently not everyone knows, the underground railroad was neither below the earth nor an actual train track. And efforts to help escaping slaves didn't take place in homes built after the end of the Civil War in 1865. In truth, the railroad was neither as organized nor as extensive as legend often suggests.
A less obvious historical error in the chronicling of the underground railroad is one of color. "Growing up white, I figured it was the whites who were helping out escaped slaves," Peters says. "I made an assumption that was completely off-base. We have way over-stated what white people in Indiana did, and way under-estimated what free black people did, at great risk to themselves."
When Peters first started researching underground railroad activity on the Ohio River border across from Louisville, which had thousands of slaves and an active slave trade, she was told by many that she wouldn't find much. Indiana was technically a free state, but it was not exactly a friendly environment for escaping slaves. Indeed, Peters' research found that even most of the white Hoosiers who opposed slavery were afraid to risk arrest by defying the Fugitive Slave Act's prohibition on giving aid to an escaping slave.
Still, Peters found a lot of evidence of runaway slave activity in the area. She started reading old government records and news reports from the decade before the Civil War, and she discovered there was a substantial black free population of 2,000 on the Indiana side of the river.
"When I read the 1850 census, that's when a light bulb just went on for me," she says. "I found out that one-quarter of the free black community on our side worked on the river. So they knew the river, and they knew where and how to cross without attracting attention."
Peters has uncovered unsung New Albany heroes like Moses Hurst and Shadrack Henderson, free blacks who were arrested for helping slaves escape from Kentucky. Further east on the river, blacks like Chapman Harris, a preacher, and George Baptiste, a barber, helped slaves escape near Madison.
Indiana historians have uncovered other African-American heroes of the underground railroad, but many more will never be known. Part of the reason for their anonymity is that African-Americans, who had little recourse in the courts, needed to keep quite secret their role giving aid to escaping slaves. But there is also the age-old phenomenon of writers of history books creating heroes who look like themselves.
"This lack of information is not limited to the underground railroad," says Roderick Bohannan, president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP. "Generally, there has been very little written about African-American involvement in American history."
Peters hopes her book, and articles by other Indiana historians like Carol Hunter and Thomas Hendrickson, will go a little way toward remedying that.
"If I had to write the book over again, I would put the black community even more center stage than I did," Peters says. "I feel that young African-Americans should know that the black community in Indiana played a huge role in helping slaves to freedom."
For more information about the underground railroad in Indiana, call the Indiana Historical Society, 232-1882.