County’s role in Underground Railroad

Henry County a stronghold in anti-slavery movement
Historical Society guest gives crowd a ride on Underground Railroad
By DARREL RADFORD
Historically Speaking“That was scary!”

The statement came from a young girl Thursday night. But she wasn’t watching a Halloween-themed movie or talking about an amusement ride. What was “scary” was the real life story of slaves trying to find freedom on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era. It was made real by Columbus actress Charlotte Battin, who presented “Freedom Is My Home” Thursday night at the Henry County Historical Society Museum.

A big crowd was in Gen. William Grose’s living room to see the one-woman drama. Youngsters seemed mesmerized as the true story of ordinary people helping slaves find their freedom unfolded in front of their eyes. Through a series of quilts, Battin explained signals were exchanged that kept the slaves safe from harm and told them when it was time to move on to the next stop on their road to freedom.

A special code also involved, of all things, a jar of pickles.

There were several poignant moments, but one of the most emotional came when Battin’s character described a friendship she had formed with a young slave who was trying to find her way to freedom. When the slave left to make her final “connection” on the “railroad” to Canada, it was a happy yet hard moment.

The harrowing and often emotional stories resonated with audience members, which spanned the generations, from youngsters to senior citizens. A few were wiping tears from their eyes when it was over.

For those who were not able to attend Thursday night’s presentation, DVDs of Battin’s one-woman play are available at the museum.

One might say the presentation “really hit home.” That was true in a literal sense, because people like the one Battin portrayed might have had similar experiences here in Henry County.

Dr. Thomas Hamm, a Spiceland resident and Earlham College professor, wrote a book in 1987 entitled “The Antislavery Movement In Henry County.” A few copies of the book are still available at the historical society museum.

In it, Hamm writes:

“In the 1840s and 1850s, Greensboro and Spiceland became well-known far beyond the boundaries of Indiana because of their anti-slavery activity. People like Walter Edgerton, Seth Hinshaw and Huldah Wickersham were among as many as 20 Henry County people involved in underground railroad activities. Some became, within a certain sphere, nationally prominent figures. Probably at no other time have events taking place in our corner of Indiana attracted such notice.”

Hamm added that “undoubtedly some fugitive slaves did come through Henry County and undoubtedly, local abolitionists aided some of them. Here are some other excerpts from his book:

n In 1843, the Henry County Female Anti-Slavery Society resolved that “it is our duty to assist the way-worn traveler on his journey from the land of oppression to the land of freedom.”

n Thomas T. Newby of Rush County remembered how he used to bring fugitives from Carthage to the Jessup neighborhood north of Knightstown.

Seth Hinshaw literally put his money where his mouth was on the slavery issue. Hamm wrote that as early as 1841, a free produce convention was held in Spiceland, where people could buy goods that were not produced by slave labor.

“To abolitionists, purchasing slave produce was indirectly supporting the institution of slavery, so they sought to abstain from such products,” Hamm wrote. “Thus they would not only keep their consciences clear, but would, if enough people could be brought to participate, bring intense economic pressures to bear upon the South.”

Hinshaw was so determined to do what he could on that score, that he opened a free produce store at Greensboro in 1842.

Hamm writes that “along with Wayne and Randolph, Henry County was the center of Indiana antislavery.

“It is true that Henry County was one of the strongest antislavery areas in the state,” Hamm wrote. “But not even Henry County, in the author’s opinion, can be considered an ‘antislavery strong-hold,’ at least not in the sense that the Western Reserve of Ohio or portions of upstate New York were.”

In any event, those attending Charlotte Battin’s performance got a harrowing glimpse of what it was like to help the slaves.

The young girl said it well. It was scary. It was also inspirational. It no doubt made all in attendance count their blessings.

Darrel Radford is executive director of The Henry County Historical Society. For more on the museum, please visit www.henry countyhs.org. Charlotte Battin is also available to perform for local schools. For more information on that, call the museum at 529-4028.
 

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