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.

Book review: Hoosier Handbook and True Guide for Returning Exiles

This book jumped out at me from a list of early Indiana authors. Having just moved back to the Hoosier state, the book seemed like it would be very relevant. What would an early 20th author have to say on the topic?

The only copy I found during an online search was in the Indiana State Library in downtown Indianapolis. I finally made the trek to this closed stack library. I gave the title to one of the librarians who disappeared into the bowels of the library. After waiting several minutes, I pulled out a book from my backpack and started reading. And reading.

After what seemed like an eternity, she returned with a small, thin red colored book. I gingerly placed it on the table in front of me and turned the pages. The lengthy subtitle was my first clue that the book was not what I suspected. “A Compilation of Facts and Near-Facts concerning Objects of Interest along the Monon Line between Chicago and Indianapolis, garnered for the use of members and guests of the Indiana Society of Chicago on the special train leaving Dearborn Station at 1 P.M. June 23, 1911.”

It was a diary of sorts about a train ride from Chicago to Indianapolis during the time when railroads were a central means of transportation.

The author, George Ade, described each town that the train passed through, noting the mileage from Chicago and interesting tidbits about the towns. Some towns I knew. Some I didn’t. Ade specifically noted people from these towns that were members of the Indiana Society of Chicago. Some interesting facts caught my attention.

Cedar Lake: I recently learned of this town in another book, Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, on which the movie A Christmas Story is based. Shepherd relates tales about the lake and the dance hall on its shores. Ade mentions this dance hall by name—the Lassen Pavilion dance hall.

Sheridan: I found myself in this town last year when I attempted to visit the historic cabin of George Boxley. Thwarted from seeing the cabin, I did see the golf cart that made national news because of its appearance in the July 4 parade in Sheridan that year. The golf cart had carried an effigy of an imprisoned Obama during the parade. When I visited Sheridan, I saw the golf cart—I actually parked directly behind it—but in the weeks after the parade, it merely sported Trump stickers.

To my delight, Ade mentions George Boxley, a socialist who moved from Virginia in 1829 with slaves that he set free. (Slavery was technically illegal in Indiana, so I am not sure how setting his slaves free made Boxley such a stand-up guy; I believe that they would have gain their freedom legally by living in Indiana.) Boxley, Ade tells us, shared his worldly goods with his neighbors and refused to pay taxes.

Horton[ville]: I had never heard of this small town. Ade mentions a Coffin farm that was a station on the Underground Railroad. Coffin? I sat up. Perhaps a relative of Levi Coffin, the President of the Underground Railroad? I know that many Coffin relatives moved from North Carolina to Indiana around the time that Levi did. Perhaps some settled in Hornton[ville].

Westfield: According to Ade, this town in Hamilton County, was the smallest town in Indiana with a Carnegie library. It also had the distinction of not having a saloon. And, this caught my eye, it was a terminus of the Underground Railroad.

I thought about how odd this little book is, but then realized that it was a kind of travel guide for the time period. Or a blog post about towns passed on the way to Indianapolis. Ade was a famous and well-respected early Hoosier author. This work seemed incongruous with what I imagined a famous Hoosier author would write. It was written for and printed by the Indiana Society of Chicago. Perhaps it was a one-off and not representative of his works.

I was also struck by the nod to anti-abolitionist behavior in Indiana. I knew of the Underground Railroad station in Fountain City where Levi Coffin lived. Ade’s offhand descriptions of the towns along the Monon Line suggests that these stations were rather prevalent.

TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Birth of a State

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book of the same name by Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, The 20th Century, and The Next Indiana.

Birth of a State covers the period of time from when Indiana lobbied for statehood to just before the Civil War. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the President of the Levi Coffin House Association (Janice McGuire, who was my docent when I visited the historical site—by the way, she is outstanding!), the Director of Historic New Harmony (Connie Weinzapfel), and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

Indiana was originally part of the Indiana Territory, which included Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota. The capital of the territory was Vincennes. (You can visit many historic sites there.) The Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison was pro-large landholdings and pro-slavery—positions that didn’t sit well with others in southern Indiana.

In 1813, a vote moved the capital east to Corydon on the Ohio River (and away from Harrison’s nexus of power, I’d argue). In 1816, 43 delegates met in the new courthouse in Corydon for a Congressional Convention. In December 1816, Congress recognized Indiana as a state. (Side note: You can visit the grave of Robert Hanna, one of the delegates and signers of the state constitution, in Crown Hill Cemetery.)

At the time, Indiana was home to numerous Indian tribes: Potawatomi, Wea, Miami, Delaware, Kaskaskia, Shawnee, Piankashaw, Huron, Wyandot, Ottawa, Seneca, Kickapoo. Eventually the Indians were either removed from the land or killed. Probably the most famous violent confrontation is the Battle of Tippecanoe of 1811, when Harrison decimated the Indians led by Tecumseh and the Prophet.

But also instructive is the 1824 Fall Creek Massacre of nine Indians that shockingly led to the trial of the white perpetrators and the execution of three of them. Unfortunately, this trial and conviction of white violence on non-whites didn’t set a legal precedent.

The documentary weaves a history through key places, people, and events throughout Indiana, mostly focused on southern Indiana as that was the first part of the state to be settled. Originally the inhabitants were Native Americans and French trappers and fur traders. Whites and blacks moved into Indiana from Kentucky and North Carolina—both slave states. However, the migrants from North Carolina were Quakers from Guilford County who left North Carolina due to slavery. The Underground Railroad thrived in Indiana.

The documentary discusses important early settlements like Vincennes (as the territorial capital) or Madison (as an international commerce hotspot on the Ohio River) or New Harmony (as the location of utopian societies: first German millennialism and then utopian socialism) or black settlements (Beech Settlement, Walnut Ridge, Corydon).

People, some well-known, some not, are discussed as being influential to Indiana history. William Conner, whose homestead exists as an historical park, went native, marrying a Native American woman. Later, he helped negotiate deals with the Native Americans that led to their removal (along with his wife and child) to Oklahoma. He then married a white woman and became a respectable businessman, clearly riding the wave of commerce moving from trapping and trade with the Native Americans to commerce with white settlers and landownership.

Lincoln, regularly touted as hailing from Illinois, lived his formative years (ages 6 to 21) in southern Indiana. Sophia Ramsdell Fuller left a detailed diary of her pioneer life in Vigo County. Mary Bateman Clark had a profound effect on the lives of slaves and former slaves in Indiana, setting a legal precedent about indentured servitude.

The Ohio River was key to the early settlement of southern Indiana—rivers being an important mode of transport for people and goods. The rivers allowed commerce and prosperity (for some). Canals, like the Wabash and Erie, were created for the same economic and commercial purpose. The financial woes brought on by the canal led to a revised constitution.

The original constitution borrowed language from the Ohio and Kentucky constitutions. The Indiana version became a model for later state constitutions. The 1816 constitution stressed the importance of education, legally proclaimed Indiana as a free state (though not always in practice), and gave all white men the vote regardless if they were landowners.

The constitution revised in 1851 prohibited debt (being debt-free even if that means not investing in the future seems to be a long-standing source of pride in Indiana), granted free education, and prohibited African-Americans from moving into the state (!). African-Americans already living in Indiana were required to register—a horrible idea but a fascinating source of historical information about African-Americans living in the state.

The documentary continues with a second part that looks at Indiana from the Civil War to World War I.

How things change

I stepped onto the wooden block and peered in through the back window. I took in the one room cabin. Bed, table, wardrobe, fireplace. I had journeyed to Sheridan, a rural town north of Indianapolis, to see the 1828 log cabin of George and Hannah Boxley.

Why was I interested in the Boxley cabin in the middle of rural Hamilton County—there is nothing else around and no reason to come to the small town of Sheridan? Because George Boxley was a former slave owner, initiator of a slave rebellion, and abolitionist who was part of the Underground Railroad. (Clearly, his thinking radically changed somewhere along the line.)

I had seen Levi Coffin’s home and read about the migration of Quakers to the Fountain City (formerly Newport) area. I had heard about abolitionists in the Vincennes area and the Indiana Supreme Court decision of Mary Bateman Clark (and saw her historical marker at the Vigo County Courthouse in Vincennes). I wanted to see another station on the Underground Railroad and step on hallow ground.

Disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside the cabin that is on the National Register of Historic Places or hear a docent speak about the Boxleys, I trekked back to my car. Along the way I noticed Trump signs. Disturbing. Passing through a nearby town I saw a Confederate flag flown from a porch, alongside an American flag. Even more disturbing.

And then I remembered the incident in Sheridan’s July 4 parade—the incident that made national news and horrified me—that racist float. Suddenly the Trump signs and the Confederate flag made perfect sense. I was in a place where racism is alive enough to be so blatant.

How ironic considering that I had come to Sheridan excited to visit the home of abolitionists who manned a station on the Underground Railroad. My god, how things have changed. And how utterly depressing.

Unnatural sights and sounds

Last October I attended a nighttime ghost tour of Irvington. This year I toured a large, reportedly haunted, house during the day.

Built in 1858, the Hannah House is in need of repairs—to the tune of $2 million dollars. But like other sites in Indiana on the National Register of Historic Places, the Hannah House does not receive any State funds.

Alexander Hannah, who built the house, presumably went to California during the gold rush, making his fortune as a store owner selling goods to prospectors. After five years, he returned home and built what has become known as the Hannah House. In the front ran a toll road, for which he collected tolls. In the back ran railroad tracks.

Railroad? Hannah was descended from Quakers and according to legend, hosted runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Nearby tunnels to the house corroborate this legend. Tragedy struck. One night eight slaves sleeping in the cellar knocked over an oil lamp and burned to death. To escape persecution for helping runaway slaves, Hannah secretly buried the bodies somewhere in the cellar.

In 1872, he married. Sadly though the nursery next to Elizabeth’s bedroom was never used. Except for a stillborn child (of which there are no records but there is reportedly a small tombstone by theirs in Crown Hill Cemetery), he and Elizabeth never had children.

The house is furnished with period pieces. All of the original furniture was stolen between the time that Hannah died (1895) and when new owners moved in (1899). However, three of the original pieces did find their way back to the house.

Found their way back? During an estate sale, the volunteers of Hannah House were told about three pieces that would be perfect for the house. When they went to examine them, they discovered the name Hannah engraved on the back of the pieces. These pieces all belonged to “Grandma” and fill her room on the second floor once again. The bed was actually where she passed away.

Across the hall from her room is Hannah’s office, which has a secret passageway that leads down the back stairs to the kitchen. According to the stories recounted, it led to a stockpile of guns that the servants—former slaves—had access to in case they needed to protect themselves, the Hannahs, or the property.

The cellar is a step back in time, housing rows and rows of what looks like canned foods from another century. Covered with dust and dirt, some of the contents were recognizable—peaches, green beans—others not so much. Apparently, these glass jars and their contents were canned by Grandma herself.

As for paranormal behavior in the house, our tour guide recounted lots of stories—from legends and first-hand experiences.  The Hannah House hosts nighttime ghost tours and has welcomed various psychics over the years. Interestingly, the psychics all recount the same story about the attic, that voodoo was performed there, presumably by slaves from New Orleans or environs.

The tour guide himself has heard sounds and seen spirits during maintenance work on the house well as during the numerous times that he has slept (!) in the house. He counted around a dozen distinct spirits that he has met in the house—none are malicious, one is frightened. While in the house, he has heard steps overhead that he traced up floor to floor to the locked attic. He has seen the spirit of what appeared to be a bounty hunter with long beard, coat, and guns at the top of the stairs. He has had lights turned off and doors closed on him, and heard a child’s laughter and a baby’s cry.

After his first night sleeping in Grandma’s bed, he woke with long scratches down his neck, but since then has been unmolested in the bed. On several other occasions sleeping in her room, he has seen the chandelier swing, the baby carriage in the room rock back and forth, and a man walking back and forth in the hallway outside of the room. Noise from a party on the first floor stopped when he peered over the railing to see what the commotion was about.

Thankfully, our tour was not interrupted by unexpected visitors—though Grandma’s room was eerily cold compared to the rest of the house, the usual sign of paranormal activity. Was the chill in her room an oddity or the presence of spirits?