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The Writing's on The Wall of The River

SOUTHERN INDIANA - I love Indiana's waterways and their significance to the life that has chosen to settle around them. Indiana grew like a Sycamore, from the bottom up. It was the Ohio River and Southern Indiana's steamboat industry that lead to Jeffersonville at one time being the "de facto capital of the Indiana Territory" from in 1813 and 1814. New Albany was once the largest and wealthiest city in Indiana during the time of the Civil War, and Clarksville, founded in 1783, is the oldest town in the Northwest Territory.

My college teammate/roommate, Marcus, is from Jeffersonville, so it only made sense that he tagged along with me for this trip. Most of the time I just refer to Marcus as my brother.

Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany are the fraternal triplets that were born on the river. Southern Indiana is old, my hometown of Indianapolis wasn't even platted until 1820. I went down to the river to learn a little from Indy's older siblings.

See, the river is critical, it's impossible for me not to look at the water and not instantly think of the significance of crossing is before the end of the Civil War. The Ohio separates Kentucky and Indiana, the slave states and the free states. The old triplets proximity to the river made it the first stop in "free" territory for hundreds of freedom seekers making their way up north.

To get a better understanding of how the river was viewed in terms of freedom, I went to New Albany's Carnegie Center for Art & History. Quotes like the ones included below are all along the interior walls of the Center.

"Some folks call the Ohio the River Jordan, because you've got to cross it to get to the Promised Land of the North. They learn soon enough that New Albany isn't any Promised Land. To be free, they've got to keep traveling north." - Henson McIntosh

"People escaping slavery get across the Ohio any way they can. Most use the ferries, or find a boatman who'll carry them across, but I've heard of some who've tried to swim. Every day down here at the wharf, policemen hunt for runaways. Slave catchers, too, like Joe Reeder, are always on the prowl for easy targets to collect fat bounties." - James M. Haines

The next quote I'll include is one that I found extremely important, I like to use to Underground Railroad as a way to show how it takes diverse groups of people to make things happen. It sometimes creates this narrative of "white saviors" coming to the aid and rescue of all these poor poor black people. However, it was indeed us that helped us the most.

"Some say the only way slaves can escape is if white abolitionist help them. They want to think colored people aren't smart enough to figure out the details. That's just not true. Around here a lot more colored folks than whites are working for the cause." - Henson McIntosh

Here's a stat for you, this was also on the wall: By the 1850s, one-tenth of all slaves in the United States lived in Kentucky. Many of these people were destined to be torn from their Kentucky families and sold "down the river" to planters in the deep south for cotton and rice plantations.

As I walked along the walls of the river in Jeffersonville, Indiana, I came across one of those historical markers that I've grown to love so much. This one was for a woman I wasn't too familiar with yet, Hannah Toliver.

"Emancipation Proclamation (1863) did not free slaves in Kentucky. In April 1864, Hannah Toliver, a free black woman living in Jeffersonville, was arrested for aiding a fugitive slave from Kentucky. In May, she was convicted and sentenced to seven years in the Kentucky Penitentiary; She was pardoned January 5, 1865 and returned to Jeffersonville. Toliver and other blacks risked their freedom aiding fugitives. Slavery in U.S. abolished December 1865. The Underground Railroad refers to a widespread network of diverse people in the nineteenth century who aided slaves escaping to freedom from the southern U.S."

This marker right here was the first historical marker dedicated to an African-American woman in the state of Indiana. In 1860, Hannah Toliver was listed as a washerwoman, but that wasn't her only job. Hannah Toliver was a conductor, she was a captain. She was underground... aiding those that looked like her, those that looked like me... to freedom.

IN.GOV - In the fall of 1850 President Millard Fillmore had signed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. When Congress adopted this law, a Columbus, Ohio, newspaper declared that the federal government now dedicated itself to "Life, Liberty, and the 'Pursuit of Niggers.'"

The new law potentially subjected every free black in the North to capture by slave catchers. Under the terms of the 1850 law, slave hunters and holders simply had to swear to a justice of the peace that their captives were fugitive slaves. They then received legal permission to carry the blacks into bondage, and the captives had no voice in the matter. Under this law federal commissioners had the power to deputize private citizens to assist in the capture of fugitives; anyone who helped the alleged fugitives could be fined.

What seems so unbelievably cruel and inhumane today, was once legal right across the river in Kentucky. The distance between right and wrong seems to grow over time, and I think the gap is now much wider than the Ohio. Due to our extremely racist laws like the Fugitive Slave Act, Indiana isn't innocent in any of this either. As this country has evolved, I think we've came to realize just how wicked of a place it must have been. How wicked of a place it still is. I look across that water and cant help to think about all of my brothers and sisters that were sent "down the river." I look across that water and I think of Breonna Taylor..

I think about all the people that were waiting with open arms in Jeffersonville, New Albany, and Clarksville. I'm working on another article now that will highlight more of New Albany's role in the Underground Railroad, I'm still partly traumatized that a system like this even had to exist in America.

We often choose to ignore the savage and brutal nature of the country and her founders. We choose only to celebrate the things that are easy to talk about. Regardless of what you choose to focus on, it all happened, and it still impacts every single aspect of life in this country today. We're still trying to save ourselves, and if you don't believe me... the writing's on the wall of the river.

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Thanks for the insights and your travels. I came here to find more about Hannah Coleman Toliver, whose marker I saw this weekend. As a white man I raised an eyebrow at the way the marker refers to the diversity of people who sustained the freedom seekers on their journeys - especially on a marker commemorating the sacrifice of a Black woman. It felt odd, like someone was trying to assure me that there were white folks involved. Maybe not here. Maybe not then. So why not just let her have her marker without an engraved photo-bomb intrusion? Your local quotes are poignant, especially the idea that there really was no "finish line" for freedom in southern Indiana. Is there…


Thank you for sharing this tour of southern Indiana. It's mind-boggling and excruciatingly painful to learn about the horrors that happened there. I, myself, lived in Louisville for many years but never heard about the fact that one of the biggest slave trade markets was right there at the end of Main Street, and that the phrase about being "sold down the river" originated right there. We must confront (to use your phrase) "the savage and brutal nature of the country and her founders," even in our own backyard. Thank you again.

Sampson Levingston
Sampson Levingston
Feb 24, 2021
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Thank you for your comment! So many people fail to realize how this all still impacts us today, it’s taking everybody looking back at history to understand what’s really been going on

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