Tour A 8. Willis Brown & The Underground

Historic view of the Georgia Street Neighborhood viewed over today's landscape. Yellow buildings are frame and pink brink. Note the streets vacated for the construction of the Indianapolis Convention Center.      Image Source: Google Earth and 1887 Indianapolis Sandborn Map IUPUI Digital Collections

Historic view of the Georgia Street Neighborhood viewed over today’s landscape. Yellow buildings are frame and pink brink. Note the streets vacated for the construction of the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Image Source: Google Earth and 1887 Indianapolis Sandborn Map IUPUI Digital Collections

This is the site of the home of Willis Brown, a carpenter and founding Trustee of the Indianapolis Station AME Church.  Evidence suggests that he assisted a slave family’s escape in 1845 by sheltering them and transporting them to Hamilton County, to the African American settlement of Roberts. Since his home was near the railroad tracks and depot, he would park his wagon near the station, and blacks could be quickly transported to other safe areas without alerting the slave catchers.[1] The Indianapolis Station AME Church was a leader in the freedom movement in Indiana through 1) direct action, 2) advocating for social justice 3) building free communities and 4) outstanding leaders for freedom. 

Re-imaging the Underground Railroad

Transportation of enscaping slaves by wagon.  Image Source: William Still's The Underground Railroad

Transportation of escaping slaves by wagon.
Image Source: William Still’s The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is “the effort of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom by escaping bondage.”[2] This definition places an emphasis on individuals, particularly former slaves, and not those that assisted escapes. It also recognizes the long complicated journey to freedom, connecting battles in the court room, education and to escape narratives. This definition embraces the period from the earliest history of slavery in the colonies until the Reconstruction period.

Popular images of the Underground Railroad draw heavily on the physical imagery of the “railroad,” placing the evidence on identifying the physical places of Underground Railroad.” Soon every town in America with a coal chute was part of this mysterious network of “stations” and Northern White “conductors.”[6]  The myths and misunderstandings of the freedom movement, started almost as soon as the phrase “Underground Railroad” began to be applied to it by White abolitionists. During the ante-bellum period, Fredrick Douglass characterized the clandestine network as the “upper-ground railroad,” urging that participants keep the system a secret until slavery was completely abolished. [7]

White operatives, such as Levi Coffin, wrote their memories and focused on the White roles, minimizing the freedom seekers and Black operatives. Coffin, though declaring himself President of the Underground Railroad, confessed that he did not understand the workings of the African American system to share information about escaping slaves.[8] From the African American point of view, struggles for freedom stretch back into the earliest days of slavery, in violent, high stakes clandestine operations on the “front lines of freedom.”[9]  African Americans were essential to the operation of the networks and were instrumental in their own liberation, whether through direct action or providing a viable and visible free alternative to the slave system of the South. New studies have also specifically looked at the work of free Blacks communities in supporting the freedom journeys.[10]

Chaplin Garland White demonstrates an example of this complex “Underground Railroad” journey.  He escaped from salvery in 1857 while traveling with his owner. As a slave, he served as an AME minister. After moving to Canada, he continued his work as an AME preacher, assisted other new immigrants.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, he returned to the United States recruiting Black Troops for the United States Army, then served as a Chaplin in the 28th United States Colored Troops.  Serving as a Trustee, he helped the Indianapolis Station community recover from the fire. This entire twelve year journey could be considered a story of the Underground Railroad.[3]

1. Direct Action

The public has viewed the Underground Rail Road as solely individuals helping slaves escaping from the North, which can be considered direct action. Individual church members were active in assisting escaping slaves on their freedom journey, risking their lives by housing and transporting people’s escapes from bondage.  Founding church Trustee  James Overall assisted famed Underground Railroad activist Jermain Lougen escape from slavery in 1838. While Lougen claimed that Overall assisted many escapees, the story in Lougen 1859 book is the only direct evidence of this early activity.  Accounts such as Lougen’s could have jeapordised the transportation networks and individuals in Indiana, however Lougen wanted to publicize the work of free blacks and probably believed that enough time had passeed that eh could share the story without risking Overall’s safety. [4]  Willis Brown assisted a slave family’s escape in 1845 by parking his wagon near the Railroad Station, and the blacks could be quickly transported to other safe areas without alerting slave catchers often found in Indianapolis. Indianapolis was an important railroad hub, and by the 1850’s many slaves were riding the above ground railroad to freedom. Being a porter was one of the few transportation related jobs open to African Americans, and several congregation members, such as A.J. Overall, son of James Overall, may have assisted slave coming through the city by rail. [5]

Song sheet promoting Abolition. Image Source: Library of Congress, loc.gov

Song sheet promoting Abolition.
Image Source: Library of Congress, loc.gov

2. Advocating for Social Justice

Indianapolis Station was a leader in the social justice movement advocating for civil rights, organizing African Americans across the state at “Colored Confrences,” hosting abolition speakers such as Francis Harper,  operating schools, recruiting troops for the Civil War and lobbying for changes in state and national laws during Reconstruction.  

3. Building Free Communities

The Ohio River, referred to by many slave spirituals as the River Jordan, was the dividing line between slavery and free-soil, but slavery extended its reach into Indiana, and the Black communities struggled to maintain their perilous grip on freedom and serve as a beacon for escaping slaves.[11]  Viewing the Underground Railroad from Indianapolis, the AME church connected small rural Indiana communities on the “front line of freedom” with religious and political leaders with the broader national freedom movements.[12] The Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley comprised a complex network of Whites and Blacks participating in “first successful interracial liberation movement.” In addition, specifics of location and time changed the political circumstances and activities of the Underground. Indianapolis was termed a “moral refrigerator,” with Abolition movement not gaining a foothold in the city, though there were individuals acting on their anti-slavery beliefs.[13]

4. Outstanding Leaders for Freedom

The lives of former enslaved people in the North can also be understood as stories of the Underground Railroad. Many of the courageous stories of these men and women are not recorded in the history books, as they struggled to build new lives in Indianapolis.  Research is complicated by the need for secrecy, even in this area, with many former slaves changing thier names or obscuring their origins in the records for their safety. Most lived under the near constant fear that they could be returned to the South, as the Indianapolis case of John Freedman, Indianapolis’ most wealthy free Black who was jailed to be returned to the South. Rev. James Lynch, who was trained to the AME ministry at Indianapolis Station by Elisha Weaver, was born into slavery and escaped to the North.  He went on to not only help congregations in the North, but returned to the South as a Freedman’s Bureau agent in North Carolina. He went on to serve as North Carolina Secretary of State, helping supervise some of the first elections where former slaves exercised their hard fought right to vote. Rev. Garland White returned from freedom in Canada to help ensure freedom for African Americans during the Civil War. Mrs. Josephine Dupee escaped from slavery during the Civil War to Indianapolis, with her husband serving in the Union Army, building a new life in the North.

African Americans in front of a church, Courtesy of Library of Congress, loc.gov.

African Americans in front of a church, Courtesy of Library of Congress, loc.gov.

 

Extending the understanding of the Underground from the earliest days of slavery through the Civil War era complicates the journey to freedom for thousands of new Hoosiers. Embracing these changes with be difficult; leaving the “station” and getting on the “train,” the study of the underground must shifting away from uncovering places of hiding to activities that built freedom.[14] Today, Bethel AME Church is committed to this effort. The church is a participant in the Indiana Freedom Trails, the Indiana state organization dedicated “to locate, to identify, to verify, to protect, to preserve, and to promote those Indiana sites and routes as part of the National Underground Railroad network.”[15] The Bethel AME Church is also listed as a part of the National Park Service “Network to Freedom,” being one of only three listed properties for the state of Indiana.[16]

8. Site of home of Willis Brown

Forge History

Forge History

Learn more about Indiana and the Underground Railroad.

Visit Freedom Trail Park in Westfield, Indiana.


[1] “Underground Railroad- Indianapolis,” Vertical File, DNR-Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology, Indianapolis, Indiana.

[4] See Dani Paff, “James Overall Marker Application,” Indiana Historical Bureau; Carol M. Hunter, To Set the Captives Free: Reverand Jermain Wesley Loguen and the Struggle for Freedom in Central New York, 1835-1872 (Garland, 1993).

[5] Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900: a Study of a Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 349–351.

[6] David Blight,Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (HarperCollins, 2006).

The Ransom Place neighborhood shows the best examples of the working class houses, such as the shotgun form, that would have been typical of the area during the antebellum period, many are undergoing preservation.

The Ransom Place National Register District  neighborhood shows the best examples of the working class houses, such as the shotgun form, that would have been typical of the area during the antebellum period, many are undergoing preservation.

[7] As quoted in Ibid.

[8]Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Fre.edom through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents (R. Clarke & Co., 1880);

[9] Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), xii.

[10] Blight, Freedom’s Passages, 86-89; Fergus Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad (Harper Collins, 2009); Hunter, To Set the Captives Free; Dona Stokes-Lucas, Interpretive Stories Associated with the Underground Railroad in the Indianapolis Area (Dept. of Natural Resources, 2001).For national efforts see National Park Service, Exploring A Common Past: Researching and Interpreting The Underground Railroad.

[11] Griffler, Front Line of Freedom, xx. See also, Floyd John Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787-1863 (University of Illinois Press, 1975).

[12] Griffler, Front Line of Freedom; Nikki Marie Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868 (Ohio University Press, 2005); John T. Cumbler, From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Randy Keith Mills, Report Concerning Underground Railroad Activity in Southwestern Indiana (Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources, 2001); Randy K. Mills, “‘They Defended Themselves Nobly’: A Story of African American Empowerment in Evansville, Indiana 1857,” Black History News and Notes (August 2005): 2–5; Jeannie Regan-Dinius, “‘With Bodily Force and Violence:’ The Escape of Peter,” Black History News and Notes (2008): 5–7.

[13] Gwendolyn Crenshaw, “Bury Me in a Free Land”: the Abolitionist Movement in Indiana, 1816-1865: The Catalog. (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1986).

[14] For a model of these types of studies, see Jeannie Regan-Dinius, “‘With Bodily Force and Violence:’ The Escape of Peter”; Griffler, Front Line of Freedom.

[16] National Park Service, “Aboard the Underground Railroad– Bethel AME Church, Indiana,” accessed January 16, 2013.

Civil War era barbershop. Image courtsey of chicagobarbersassociation.org

Continue to Stop 9: Augustus Turner

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