Carnegie Center for Art and History

After stopping by the Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site in New Albany, Indiana, I wandered down the road, closer to the center of town. I was looking for the Carnegie Center for Art and History.

New Albany was one of those towns in the US that was the recipient of Andrew Carnegie’s largesse. As is often the case (but not always), Americans particularly in the late 19th century who made ungodly amounts of money on the backs of fellow Americans often became philanthropists (to assuage their guilt? to refurbish their reputations?). Out of the 2,509 Carnegie libraries built throughout the world, 164 were in Indiana.

The Carnegie library in New Albany served as the city library until 1969 and then as a local museum. Finally in 1998, the building morphed into its present incarnation as a center for art and history.

As I entered the building, I saw people hard at work revamping the two front galleries for upcoming exhibits. Never fear. All was not lost. The galleries may have been between exhibitions but the permanent exhibitions were still around…quite detailed and well done.

The first permanent exhibition I saw was Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Men & Women of the Underground Railroad. The exhibition brings together statistics and human faces with bios, newspaper articles, quotes, and stories. At the end is an interactive display where you can dive deeper into certain topics. I could have easily spent an hour digesting all of the information on the interactive display.

As much as you think you know about the slave trade, the struggle of abolition, or the Underground Railroad, this exhibition will disabuse you of that notion.

The exhibition starts with a chronology of events and laws, a very sobering reminder of how the country was founded on slavery and how profoundly the rule of law upheld this “peculiar institution”. A Dutch trader, who robbed a Spanish ship of its human cargo in 1619, was the first to bring Africans to what would become the US. These kidnapped Africans would first be indentured, but by the 1660s, laws existed that defined slavery.

Jefferson’s famous Declaration of Independence in 1776 called out King George for “exciting domestic insurrection”. I never really thought about what “exciting domestic insurrection” meant. King George, Jefferson and our political forefathers argued, was encouraging slaves and free blacks to rise up and fight on the side of the British against their American masters.

In 1787, the Constitution contained three provisions that established the legal framework for the protection of the institution of slavery. In the same year, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north and west of the Ohio River. And the race to our collective schizophrenia about slavery was on.

The 1793 Federal Fugitive Slave Law made it a crime to aid or harbor slaves and it allowed owners or agents to apprehend runaway slaves. In 1843, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania weakened this law. The courts ruled that law enforcement officers could not be punished if they refused to help apprehend runaway slaves. (Anyone hearing echoes of our current situation about the federal government trying to force local and state authorities to aid in the apprehending of illegal immigrants?) In 1850, Congress reacted to this judgment with the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, which overturned a 1842 law; law officials MUST help apprehend runaway slaves.

Indiana was equally schizophrenic. Although slaves existed in the Northwest Territory as people moved to the area (even though the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery), Indiana’s first constitution in 1816 prohibited slavery. The territorial governor Harrison argued for slavery (he owned some), but others in southern Indiana who were advocating for statehood were opposed to slavery. Blacks though were by no means welcome in the state. Article 13 of the 1851 state constitution prohibited blacks in Indiana.

The exhibition quotes and highlights numerous people important in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad in southern Indiana, focusing on the New Albany area. New Albany is situated on the banks of the Ohio River, ground zero for slaves escaping the south. Even though Indiana was technically a free state, inhabitants on the banks of the Ohio River were vehemently divided on the issue of slavery. And slaves were not free or out of danger once they reached the Hoosier side of the river. The Underground Railroad snaked through Indiana, taking escaping slaves to places further north and into Canada.

Although I knew of Levi Coffin, the President of the Underground Railroad, who was situated on the Eastern border with Ohio mid-way up the state, I was not familiar with names of people involved in the slavery debate (pro or anti), or of escaped slaves, along the Ohio River. The names of people in the exhibition were unknown to me.

The peak of the Underground Railroad ran from 1850 to 1865, the end of the Civil War. The exhibition covers the Civil War era and immediate aftermath, listing the immediate post-Civil War amendments that gave African Americans rights (in theory) equal to whites: the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. (One slight error, which irked me: the exhibit explained that the 15th amendment gave blacks the right to vote. It actually gave black MEN the right to vote.)

Next to this exhibition was a related one: Remembered: The Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols. This was a fascinating look into the life of one African American woman during the Civil War. Lucy was uniquely positioned; she was a slave with medical training, invaluable skills to have during a war.

Lucy attached herself to the 23rd Indiana Volunteers Infantry Regiment, originally cooking and doing laundry for them, and eventually using her medical training. Her invaluable help in saving their lives endeared her to the troops. She was one of them, included in reunions and made a member of GAR (Grand Army of the Republic). After her death on January 15, 2015, she was buried with military honors.

Unfortunately, she was originally denied a military pension. The 23rd Indiana fought for years to get her a military pension. The ironic situation was that she needed to have paperwork proving that she had worked as a nurse, but of course, in the situation of the time, there was no paperwork. The exhibition chronicles the years of letter writing by important people attempting to secure a pension for her.

It took an act of Congress decades after the Civil War to get her a petition. HR 4741, signed by President McKinley (1897-1901!), legislated that she was to receive $12 a month (= $325 in today’s dollars).

The Carnegie Art and History Center website includes a short video about Lucy on their website: http://www.carnegiecenter.org/remembered-life-lucy-higgs-nichols/

The third permanent exhibition was a small gallery of portraits by George Morrison (1820-1893). Morrison was the portrait artist of Indiana governors and a leading portrait painter in New Albany and the environs.

The Carnegie Art and History Center is a wonderful gem nestled in New Albany, Indiana. I expected art on my visit but not the rich historical exhibitions about slavery, the Underground Railroad in the area, or the experiences of a African American nurse in an Indiana regiment.

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