I see Freedom; Black history Month

Kentucky’s location played a pivotal role in slaves finding their way to freedom on the underground railroad as it is bordered to the north by Illinois, Ohio an
Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 9:19 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Imagine being forced to work all day with no pay.

You could be bought and sold just like the animals you cared for on the farm you tended. Your small home had a dirt floor and the food you received was often not suitable for an animal to eat.

This was the life of a Kentucky slave.

Kentucky’s location played a pivotal role in slaves finding their way to freedom on the underground railroad as it is bordered to the north by Illinois, Ohio and Indiana and is the only state surrounded on three sides by rivers.

Jerome K. Finn shares the history of The Town Clock Church and helps with the upkeep of the historic church.

He is passionate not only about sharing it’s history but learning more of its history too.

”The thought of putting husbands and wives and children up on an auction block and stripping them naked, auctioning them off and tearing families apart and selling them to different owners,” Finn said. “How human beings can do that is beyond me.”

Kentucky was known as a slave breeding state. The Bluegrass State was a distribution center of human bodies for labor.

It exported more slaves than did most states.

”Slave buyers came from the South to buy here in Louisville,” Finn said. “They were sold from Kentucky into the South because the South needed so many slaves.”

Slaves sold down south from Kentucky used the expression “sold down the river”.

A trip down river was equivalent to death because of brutally hard labor on cotton plantations, inhumane treatment, and separation from family.

To keep from being sold down river or anywhere many slaves took their chances to run for freedom and cross the Ohio river to the free state of Indiana.

”I can’t imagine what it felt like when you were there with shackles and chains looking over and thinking if only, we could get there,” Finn said. “Indiana was a free state, but this was not a safe place to be as a Black person.”

Running to freedom came with possible consequences for the run-away slave and anyone willing to help.

”I would imagine anyone that was running for their life was terrified.” Finn said. ”If you help someone escape slavery it’s the same as stealing property.”

Parishioners of Town Clock Church of New Albany saved not only souls but lives. They were part of the underground railroad.

It sat right on the banks of the Ohio river directly in front of the Portland Wharf.

“The steeple on this church I think was built very specifically to be a beacon of hope for people who saw it and knew if they could just get over here there’d be somebody here to help them,” Finn said.

The map to freedom came by word of mouth. Whispers from one person to another telling them where to go. It sat at one of the most important crossing points on the river.

In the free state of Indiana, Town Clock Church was integrated so Black people walking through its doors was not suspicious.

According to oral tradition passed down through the church, slaves who came through the doors were swiftly taken to the undercroft of the church until they could be safely ushered out of town.

“The idea is to get safe, get help and get out of New Albany,” Finn said. “Part of the oral tradition that was handed down to the Baptist congregation is in these rooms enslaved people would hide until they could get to freedom.”

William Culbertson, Washington DePauw and H.H. Brewer are just a few of the high profile successful white businessmen who were members of the church willing to risk their wealth and reputation to back the underground railroad.

Indiana felt the tension and anger of Kentucky slave owners who felt they were being robbed of “their” property and wealth.

Because of this problem Indiana’s Constitution of 1851 said its borders were closed to all people who were not white.

“The state of Indiana basically enacted a law that said no more Blacks allowed in the state of Indiana,” explained Finn. “If you were currently here you could stay.”

Indiana’s Constitution of 1851 read in part; “No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.”

This act reflected a growing antipathy of Hoosiers toward Blacks due to increased tensions over the issue of slavery and the fear of racial intermixing.

It also demonstrated the strength of the exclusion and colonization movements, which sought to remove Blacks to Africa.

Town Clock Church has a mission to preserve the history of the church for future generations.

Donations are accepted for the upkeep and preservation of the historic church. You can visit their website to schedule a tour www.townclockchurch.org .