The roles Kentucky and Indiana played in the Underground Railroad

New Albany served as a final layer of passage for slaves to escape from Kentucky.
Published: Feb. 24, 2021 at 8:42 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Networking and trust were key factors in the creation of the Underground Railroad in the years prior to the US Civil War.

Kentucky was the last state slaves needed to pass through on the Underground Railroad’s northern route to freedom. All they had to do was cross the Ohio River and meet those on the other side who could help them in their flight to freedom. Many called it the “River Jordan”. It was the border of freedom, hope, and the American Dream.

“As you can imagine the Ohio formed the Mason Dixon Line,” proclaimed Al Gorman, Coordinator of Public Programs and Engagement at New Albany’s Carnegie Center for Art and History.

Its muddy deep waters served as the de facto border between the free state of Indiana.

“It was a very, very tense place even for people of color who were free,” explained Gorman. “Although there were free blacks here, the state of Indiana passed laws in 1850 even excluding free blacks from other places in the United States from even relocating in the state.”

In the slave state of Kentucky, the bustling shores of the Ohio were busy with the goods being moved up and down the river.

“There was a lot of commerce that was occurring along the Ohio River and of course in Louisville there were two places were human beings were sold,” shared Gorman.

One of the two sites sat at the corner of Second and Main streets across from the KFC Yum! Center. A marker acknowledges the Garrison Slave Pen.

Mathew Garrison, a Kentucky slave trader, would hold slaves at the pen, and then ship those people to southern slave markets.

“In Kentucky we kind of raised individuals for market to sell down south,” explained Gorman. “In terms of agriculture, we really did not need the enslaved workforce like the other places down south where there were crops were more labor-intensive like sugar cane and cotton.”

The expression of betrayal to “sell me down the river” came from the mid-1800s when slaves were sold down the river to work as laborers on cotton plantations in the south. It meant a hard life until death. Many chose to take their chances on the underground railroad instead if they could. The Railroad was comprised of people and places used to move those running from their masters to places of safety.

“These were prominent citizens in New Albany who owned not only railroads, but they also owned and made steamboats,” shared Gorman. The underground railroad was an unofficial network of groups and individuals who did what they could to aid runaway slaves.

“They had access to transportation that would allow people to disappear in various ways,” he exclaimed. “There were tremendous penalties for being caught.” The Town Clock Church, now the Second Baptist Church, a landmark in downtown New Albany Indiana was just one of many stations on the Underground Railroad.

“It was pretty much an open secret here in New Albany,” Gorman said with a smile.

We are still learning information today about the trials and tribulations of those willing to run for their freedom. Slaves negotiated their way through a web of safe places and a network of safe people.

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