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.

First Indiana teachers

The first teachers in Indiana appear in Vincennes, the oldest community in the southwest corner of the state on the Wabash River. I had never thought about teachers in Indiana before Indiana was a state (1816) or even a territory (1800). I just imposed the Little House on the Prairie narrative on the Indiana Territory: young, unmarried women were the schoolteachers. But who were the teachers before there were young, unmarried frontier women?

Priests. Priests and ministers had the training and knowledge to be educators.

Vincennes was a French trading post established in 1732. Jesuit priests began arriving not long afterward and a church was established by 1749. In 1779 George Rogers Clark took Vincennes from the British, who retreated to Fort Detroit.

Through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Congress of the Confederation (which preceded the Congress of the United States) established the Northwest Territory, which included present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the eastern part of Minnesota. The west was opening up for white settlers.

The Northwest Ordinance stressed the importance of education. Article 3: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

In 1792, Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget, at the St. Francis Xavier parish in Vincennes, set up a school in Vincennes. He was succeeded at the parish by Fr. John Francis Rivet.

In 1800 in anticipation of the modern-day Ohio portion of the Northwest Territory becoming a state, the Indiana Territory was formed. Vincennes became its capital and William Henry Harrison its governor. In 1801, Harrison reached out to Fr. Rivet, asking him to set up a public school, the Jefferson Academy.

Flaget is considered the first parochial school teacher of Indiana and Rivet the first public school teacher in Indiana. Thus, education—with an emphasis on Latin and French—in what would become Indiana first developed thanks to French Catholic priests—a far cry from the Little House on the Prairie narrative of female schoolmarms.

Grouseland

Immediately next to the central campus of the Vincennes State Historic Sites lies the historic home of William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1812. The house is incredibly well-preserved, especially considering what it has been through.

The house was built between 1802 and 1804, just a few years into Harrison’s assignment as territorial governor and just a couple of decades after George Rogers Clark captured Vincennes (1779). In 1812 Harrison left Grouseland and Indiana to fight in the War of 1812.

The 4,000 square feet of Grouseland became a hotel during the days of railroad construction. Then it was used as a barn. (Yes, a barn.) In 1909 the Daughters of the Revolution saved Grouseland from being torn down and began renovations. In 1960 Grouseland was designated a National Historic Landmark.

These days Grouseland is a museum, open for tours. A backroom by the kitchen serves as the gift shop. Adjacent rooms serve as a museum of sorts with exhibits of artifacts and information about Harrison’s life. Docents start the tours in these adjacent rooms and take you through the entire house, upstairs and downstairs, pointing out important pieces of furniture, relating stories, and answering questions.

Grouseland is built of brick and was constructed as a fortress to withstand attacks by Native Americans. (A real issue…the last big skirmish was the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 near Lafayette where Harrison slaughtered Native Americans.)

The front door is separated into panels, which form a cross, with a half window above it, which symbolizes the rising sun and Christ’s resurrection. The door signals to passers-by that Christians dwell within. The staircase in the foyer mirrors one at Mt. Vernon. The foyer contains a painting of Mrs. Harrison—alas, a replica. The original lives in the White House. (When the painting came up in an auction, Barbara Bush outbid the foundation.)

The basement houses a wine cellar (though Harrison didn’t drink.) The warming kitchen is down in the basement. Other exhibits with artifacts—such as looms—fill the rest of the basement.

As territorial governor, Harrison’s main duty was acquiring land for Western expansion. Land acquisition consisted of making treaties with the Native Americans. He elicited the help of former fur traders (such as Michel Brouillet) to interpret during the negotiations and later spy during conflicts with the Native Americas. Harrison also administered the district of Louisiana from the Louisiana Purchase during 1804 and 1805. Unsurprisingly, land speculation was rampant. Harrison paid for Grouseland ($20,000) from land sales he made. (No corruption there!)

Harrison hosted visitors who stayed for extended periods in what is referred to as “the dependency” section of the house. This section was a back addition to the house, made of lathe and plaster, much different from the grander front of the house. (Interestingly, damage still exists in the dependency from the 1811 earthquake.)

Who did Harrison entertain? Aaron Burr, Zachary Taylor, Lewis and Clark. Zachary Taylor was stationed at Fort Knox in Vincennes in 1811 during his time as a captain in the army. Lewis and Clark stopped by in 1806 on their way back to Washington DC after their famous expedition. (They explored the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and the Northwest Territory from 1803 to 1806.)

The dependency was also where the servants worked (not lived). Forty to fifty servants worked at Grouseland. If you are thinking that “servants” is code for “slaves”, I suspect you are probably correct. I questioned this. The docent clearly wanted to portray Harrison in a good light. When Harrison was young, I was told, his sister tried to give him a slave, which he refused.

However, Harrison was actually a slave owner (and possibly fathered children with a slave). In 1803 he lobbied Congress to alter the Northwest Ordinance to allow slavery in the Northwest Territory. (Congress decided to change the Ordinance to allow the territories to decide for themselves whether to admit slaves or not.)

Harrison also succeeded in persuading the territorial legislature to allow indentured servitude and tried to make slavery legal in the Indiana Territory. (He ultimately failed in getting slavery legalized.) By then an abolitionist movement was coalescing, which came to power in the 1809 legislature. The legislature was able to thwart Harrison’s plans to make the Indiana Territory more attractive to settlers and more economically viable by allowing slavery. (It was all about money, not morals, for Harrison.)

After Harrison’s time as territorial governor and then as an officer in the War of 1812, he returned to Ohio. In 1836 he ran for President (against Van Buren) and lost. In 1840 he again ran for President (against Van Buren) and won.

His 1840 campaign is seen as the first modern campaign, when a candidate actually sought the vote and campaigned. He had buttons, coins, and of course a slogan touting his military past: Tippecanoe (as a reference to the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811) and Tyler too (his running mate).

He was depicted as a man of the frontier who had lived in a log cabin. (Grouseland was anything but a log cabin!) He was belittled and called an “imbecile and dotard”. However, he won. To prove his vigor (in his late 60s), he attended his inauguration without a hat or coat…and died 32 days later from pneumonia.

Regardless of Harrison’s politics, a tour of Grouseland is a great way to spend a couple of hours learning about Indiana history before Indiana became a state in 1816. The building is beautiful and the docents extremely knowledgeable. And it is literally a stone’s throw from other historical sites in Vincennes.