At dusk on a brutally hot September evening, I’m standing on the banks of the Ohio River at the point where 36th Street would run into the river, if not for the floodwall that separates this stretch of the Louisville Riverwalk from Portland.
Cottonwoods tower overhead, some with trunks so thick they must have been standing for a century or more. The soil is soft and sandy. And through the rasp of countless crickets I can faintly hear the thrum of road noise from I-64 and the Sherman Minton Bridge.
There are no historical plaques, markers or statues on this spot. But over the last 15 years an emerging body of scholarship — the work of a few groundbreaking historians — has identified this piece of ground as a key location in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement, a major way station, and sometimes a terminus, on the Underground Railroad.
Historian J. Blaine Hudson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Louisville, believes this bank would have looked much the same during the decades leading up to the Civil War, a marshy shore surrounded by, but isolated from, the busy river-port businesses that were located nearby. Tonight, with the river narrowed and its level lowered by a drought-stricken summer, it certainly seems like the sort of place where a fugitive desperate for freedom might risk a crossing — and in those antebellum years, before dams had turned the river into a series of navigable pools, a dry summer (or a frozen winter) might well have made it possible to simply walk across.
The Underground Railroad is a much-mythologized piece of American history. From the beginning of the Colonial period slaves began fleeing their shackles — often with no assistance whatsoever. But there was enough support from anti-slavery forces that by the middle 1600s a number of colonies had enacted statutes that criminalized those who sheltered or assisted fugitive slaves.
Sometime in the 1840s — about the same time the network of American railways began to surge — the “Underground Railroad” metaphor entered the language. In the decades after the Civil War, the metaphor grew increasingly elaborate. The “underground” part captured the American imagination with images of tunnels and cellars. And the “railroad” metaphor conjured images of an organized, methodical infrastructure, complete with “conductors,” “agents,” “stations,” “tickets,” elaborated coded communications systems and the like.
Given that the Underground Railroad was an illegal, furtive enterprise, its details were hidden from view, but by the end of the 19th century writers and historians — most of whom were white — had described an Underground Railroad where the leaders, conductors and agents were mostly white. It was an attractive, and romantic, vision that captured the popular imagination.
And it’s abundantly clear that white abolitionists did offer succor and support to fugitive slaves; there are ample arrest records attesting to heroic white efforts. But as early as 1872, a different narrative was emerging. William Still, a Philadelphia-based African-American abolitionist sometimes dubbed “the Father of the Underground Railroad,” published an account asserting, as one historian has put it, that “the muscle and blood of the operation was the black community.” And scholars now agree that more than anything else it was free African-American communities that were the core of the underground resistance movement that enabled tens of thousands (estimates vary) of slaves to escape to free states and to Canada. And it was geography, plus the presence of thriving communities of free African-Americans in Louisville and Southern Indiana that made Louisville an important gateway on the road to freedom.
(Besides the blacks who had escaped north, former slaves had been freed for reasons that included the reluctance of an heir to maintain a deceased slaveholder’s dominion; as the reward for years of good service; and because some slaves’ freedom was purchased.)
Slaves seeking refuge in the north (some escaped southwest to Mexico) could follow one of three broad corridors: east of the Appalachians (a route made famous by the story of Harriet Tubman); between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River; and west of the Mississippi. For those traveling the central corridor, the Ohio River was deep and wide. When wadeable (or frozen), a person might cross the shallows unassisted, but otherwise a fugitive had to wait for the right conditions — or somehow get access to a boat.
For a fugitive slave, Louisville’s geography was both an aid and an obstacle. Because of the Falls of the Ohio, the city was a transportation hub, serviced by steamboats, trains and several active ferries, with free African-Americans required to present documentation of their status before taking passage. And though a fugitive might manage to slip through (sometimes, as court records show, with the complicity of a ferryman), it was a risky chance.
That slave owners and slave catchers considered Louisville an important crossing point is clear. In the 1990s, historical researcher Pen Bogert, then a reference specialist at the Filson Historical Society (now a preservation administrator with the Nelson County Planning Commission), started investigating fugitive slave records in Jefferson County. “I nearly went blind looking at microfilm reels of old newspapers,” he says. And by the time he finished he’d found hundreds of advertisements in Louisville newspapers offering rewards for the capture and return of fugitive slaves.
But if geography made Louisville an attractive way station on the Underground Railroad, Hudson argues in his 2002 book Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland (McFarland & Co.), demographics were more important. Kentucky was a slave state, but Louisville was unusual in being home to a substantial population of free African-Americans. In 1850 there were more than 10,000 slaves in Jefferson County — but there were also more than 1,600 free African-Americans. Meanwhile, across the river, in New Albany and Jeffersonville, there were some 1,300 free African-Americans. And though whites were known to offer sanctuary to fugitives (and the vast majority of fugitives seem to have made their way with no assistance whatsoever), Hudson says it was large communities of free African-Americans that enabled fugitives a chance to “blend in, at least for a while, with free African-Americans . . . who were usually faceless and invisible to whites.”
In fact, though much of the mythology of the Underground Railroad centers around images of tunnels and cellars, Bogert and Hudson agree that the Underground Railroad is more aptly viewed as a “human network,” a loose resistance movement made of unorganized cells that sometimes offered systematic spontaneous active assistance (as arrest records for harboring suggest), but just as often offered passive cover by setting up a situation where unnoticed strangers were allowed to pass through the community.
Some of those who almost certainly rendered positive assistance to fugitives were prominent members of the local African-American community. Washington Spradling, for instance, was a freed slave who started his career in Louisville as a barber, gradually started accumulating real estate, and by the time of his death in 1868 had achieved enough wealth and fame that when he died, a notice appeared in Chicago’s Tribune under the headline “Death of a Colored Millionaire in Louisville.” Over the course of his life, Spradling is known to have purchased the freedom of 33 slaves — and Hudson believes there’s a strong possibility that Spradling and other prominent African-American Louisvillians were involved in the illegal movement of fugitives as well.
Churches likely played a role — the Quinn Chapel A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal), established in 1838, was labeled, according to Hudson, an “abolition church,” one that slaves were forbidden to attend.
But groundbreaking research by New Albany-based Pam Peters, author of The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana (McFarland & Co.), suggests that it may have been working-class African-Americans who were the true heroes of the Underground Railroad in the Louisville area. Thus, the entire African-American community was actively engaged in assisting fugitive slaves. In the process of combing through census records, Peters discovered that nearly a quarter of the African-American working population was employed in river-related occupations, crewing and loading the steamboats and ferries, while another large percentage was involved in land-based transportation, driving wagons and carts that carried goods to and on the ferries — and sometimes carrying fugitives hidden under hay or straw (or, Peters notes, “sewn up in feather beds”).
It’s only in the last 15 years or so that researchers like Bogert, Hudson and Peters have started shedding light on the full scope of Louisville’s role in what is now understood as America’s first great civil-rights movement. And, alas, there are few extant physical artifacts of Louisville’s Underground Railroad. The 19th century African-American churches in Louisville that might once have sheltered fugitives have long since been torn down (though some of the congregations remain).
There are ample rumors and legends about homes and buildings where a cellar or tunnel might have sheltered a fugitive from slave catchers, but few that can be authoritatively documented. Over in New Albany, the Second Baptist Church (founded in 1847 as the Second Presbyterian Church, an abolitionist New School branch of the denomination) is a well-documented site. It was a white church with African-American members, and there is ample evidence that fugitives who crossed the river — likely from that marshy spot near Portland — were fed and sheltered in the church’s cellar until it was safe for them to continue north. “It was a white church,” says Peters. “But it was a place where African-Americans were married, and baptized, and buried.” Peters documents other New Albany sites — homes and buildings that had “third basements,” trap doors and the like — that likely served as refuges (though many of those buildings are gone as well).
But if the cellars and tunnels are mostly gone, there are other symbols of the past — like the tilted towering monument to Washington Spradling that looms in the southeast corner of Louisville’s Eastern Cemetery.
And there are modern efforts to recover and interpret Louisville’s part in the Underground Railroad. New Albany’s Carnegie Center for Art and History has two outstanding exhibits that tell the story: “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Men and Women of the Underground Railroad,” a compelling collection of individual stories based on Pam Peters’ book; and “Remembered: The Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols,” the story of a slave from Tennessee who became a nurse working with the 23rd Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War.
For Sally Newkirk, director of the Carnegie Center, these exhibits are not just living accounts of the past, but lessons for the present and signals of the future. “We’re just at the beginning of understanding these stories,” she says. “The research that Pam and Blaine and Pen have done really helps us understand things about our communities that just haven’t been well known. It’s a story about regionalism. It’s a story about mutual support, and a story about freedom.”
And, of course, it’s a story about America.
Illustrations by Bart Galloway