SALEM, INDIANA -Earlier this year, in New Albany, there was an amazing exhibit highlighting Indiana's Underground Railroad and role that Southern Indiana played along the track. I learned that for freedom seekers, there was a huge emphasis on making it a little more north, to the next town, Salem. I think about all of the groups that traveled to, through, and up and down the hills that fill the Southern portion of our state. I'm here now, in Salem, seeking any remnants of freedom, but I'm just passing through.
Underground Railroad Through Indiana
I met with a large group of historians, working to preserve the history of this area. When I arrived, there was a large map filled with rural sites significant to Indiana's rich history. Sites such as a Quaker Meeting House that was built in 1815 and is still in use today! It was incredible stuff.
There was tremendous pride in the room, plenty proud of their Quaker heritage. I know that Quakers are friends, and throughout their history they've been friendly to us here in Indiana, from aiding in escape, to aiding in settlement.
As I was taking in a lot of new information, trying to connect it to all the old information I keep within me, I asked the question, "so did Black people live here"?
Nearly all of the early, rural black settlements in Indiana were near Quaker communities.
"Yes, by 1850 around 400 Black people called Salem, Indiana home", said the Washington County historian.
Another marker was then placed on the map for where John Williams is buried.
The African-American population of Salem now hovers right around 0. So what happened? The story of John Williams, or "Black John" as he was known in Salem, allows us to see why everyone left. Today, I'm here though, but I'm just passing through.
Who Was "Black John?"
Indiana Magazine of History
Vol. 30, No. 2 (JUNE, 1934), p.. 149
The group, myself included, began making our way through the sites on the map, there was so much history that had been preserved down here in Washington County. These people down here really cared about their history, as we all should. So it's only fitting that I care about mine, about the people that looked most like me and called Indiana home.
There was a Quaker Meeting House here that was built in 1815. I was able to go inside.
There was an A.M.E. Church in town that was established before the Civil War, but it was burned down by a racist mob loooooooooooong before I got to town. I couldn't go inside.
I was seeking something, anything that let me know we used to be here. This is where John Williams is buried. There's this marker, it reads:
SITE OF THE BLACK AFRICAN METHODIST CHURCH
JOHN WILLIAMS ESTABLISHED A FUND FOR THE EDUCATION OF NEGROES WHICH IS STILL AWARDING SCHOLARSHIPS TO NEGRO STUDENTS. HE DIED IN 1863 AND IS BURIED HERE.
John Williams (as well as fellow Salem entrepreneur, Alexander White) were among the last black people to live in Salem, Indiana.
INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY - As the black community had grown, so had anti-black hostility. White was considered Salem’s “last colored resident” when he was murdered in 1867. His wealth inexplicably gone, he was doing odd jobs around town. Though retaining his wealth, Williams died similarly—presumably at the hand of white assailants. [No one was convicted for either crime. William’s murderer(s) were unknown. White’s murder was witnessed as he and others were leaving church. One assailant fled the town and avoided arrest. The other was tried but not convicted. Washington County enumerated 252 blacks in the 1850 census, but by 1870 the number had dwindled to 18. For the next century, the county’s population census recorded single digits for black residents.
Growing up, we were always taught to refer to those traveling along the Underground Railroad as 'runaway slaves', it wasn't until I was out of college that I started hearing the more appropriate term, 'freedom seekers'. I was in Salem seeking something...
I don't know if I'd call it freedom, but whatever it was, I'm still seeking it, we all are in a way.
I was just passing through. It’s important to run TO history,
But, definitely don‘t run away from it!
I enjoy doing this, the people of Salem showed me such a great time. They were very honest, open and extremely apologetic for the towns racist history. While still being proud enough to share some of the towns unique and important historic moments and individuals with me.
I've heard it's best to keep moving... whether you find freedom or not.
To read more about the John Williams scholarship/tuition grant mentioned above, please click here.