African American history in Southern Indiana is full of contradictions. On one hand, Indiana was the proverbial promised land for those escaping the clutches of slavery. On the other hand, what was waiting on the north shore of the Ohio River wasn’t always friendly or compassionate to those fleeing enslavement. 

Big Ben's African American Black History Signs  Big Bens BBQ African American Black History Pizza

You can learn about the Black experience at Big Ben's D & M Restaurant at the Depot in Jeffersonville, where posters tell the history of African American’s quest for freedom in Clark County and the surrounding area. Each poster tackles a different set of information. Important figures, notable moments, a timeline of noteworthy events, the first African American settlements and land purchases are detailed. 

One of those important dates was when Indiana became a state in 1816. At the time, some Indiana residents kept people as personal property even though the constitution forbids slavery. And although it was prohibited, enslaved people were not technically free for many years afterward. Even then, along with white women, Black people and Indigenous people were not allowed to vote or participate in the system that made laws governing their lives. In fact, upon the ratification of the second constitution of the state of Indiana, blacks were technically not allowed to settle in the state. They were only allowed to pass through. 

Around this same time, the Fugitive Slave Act passed, making it a crime to help anyone escaping enslavement. The penalties were most severe for those trying to escape. Those who participated in the Underground Railroad or helping in any way, faced fines or jail time. 

Downtown Town Clock Church Drone

Despite the danger, the Black population increased, and sanctioned settlements popped up, particularly near the homes of Quaker communities, which have a storied history of participating in the Underground Railroad.

Southern Indiana serves a unique role in the relationship between the northern and southern United States. We are a gateway, a passage and a hub for many of the events that shaped and continue to shape this country. 

As we mark another Black History Month, it is important to remember our history, both good and bad. It is equally important that we face it with honesty and humility to move forward and truly create the “more perfect union” that our federal constitution asks of us. It is an attainable goal. In southern Indiana, and around the nation, recommitting ourselves to that small task will continue to bring us closer to the dreams of those who came before us. 

Carnegie Underground Railroad

If you’d like to learn more, you can learn about the significant milestones of Black history at Big Ben's D & M Restaurant at the Depot. In addition, the Carnegie Center of Art & History has two permanent exhibits about the Black experience as well as a virtual one.

“Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Men and Women of the Underground Railroad” tells the tale of New Albany’s Underground Railroad experience and reveals the contributions of ordinary people, both free and enslaved, who showed courage during that time. 

lucy higgs

“Remembered: the Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols” guides visitors through Lucy’s life, from 1838 to 1915. Period documents and letters detail her life as a slave in Tennessee, a nurse during the Civil War, and her post-war life in freedom.

You can experience “A Reason to Remember: A Virtual New Albany Field Trip” in a special annex exhibit. This educational film tells Indiana history in collaboration with four other historic sites in New Albany: Town Clock Church, Culbertson Mansion, Scribner House, and Division Street School

Carnegie Center staff member Delesha Thomas  historic interpreter Mandy Dick
Carnegie Center staff member Delesha Thomas (L) and historic interpreter Mandy Dick (R) (portraying Hattie Scribner) are featured in A Reason to Remember: A Virtual New Albany Field Trip.

 

Additional Resources:

List of Black Owned Business in the tourism industry of SoIN to support year-round.

If there are other businesses to add to this list please reach out to Katerina@GoSoIN.com.