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With a new designation from the National Park Service, Second Baptist Church in New Albany, Indiana is now in the same category as Harriet Tubman’s adulthood home and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.
The first congregation members of Second Baptist Church, then a Presbyterian place of worship, were remarkably anti-slavery. They not only preached against the practice, but also engaged in acts of service, such as feeding, clothing and educating African American residents in Southern Indiana during the 1850s.
The history of that aid has led to the downtown church being named a national Network to Freedom site, meaning it contributed significantly to the Underground Railroad, or the network of secret routes and safe houses that transported escaped slaves or “freedom seekers” from their southern captors to the free north.
Second Baptist Church’s connection to the Underground Railroad has never been unequivocally proven to include housing escaped freedom seekers, although there is a tunnel located underneath the building. What is known is that congregation members reflected the “benevolent” spirit of the Underground Railroad, said Pam Peters, a board member of the Friends of the Town Clock Church and a local historian who filed Second Baptist Church’s Network to Freedom application.
“People want to think about the Underground Railroad being tunnels and hiding places, but we have to think above and beyond that,” Peters said. “It was an anti-slavery attitude of people who hated slavery so much that they were willing to put themselves on the line to help.”
Second Baptist Church’s pastors preached against slavery and prayed over escaped freedom seekers when they appeared in town. Congregation members also taught black soldiers who were recovering from Civil War injuries in the local hospital.
Peters had to prove to the National Park Service that all those things actually happened before Second Baptist Church could receive its Network to Freedom designation. It took Peters three months.
“You have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s,” Peters said. “I mean, colloquially speaking, you really have to. They are very detailed, and they would scrutinize so closely every one of my sentences.”
The National Park Service sent Peters’ application back several times, but in April, she finally received emailed confirmation that Second Baptist Church had been accepted as a Network to Freedom site. It’s among 21 in Indiana to receive the designation, according to the National Park Service’s website.
The designation opens up growth opportunities for the 150-year-old church. Second Baptist’s senior pastor, the Rev. LeRoy Marshall, wants the church to get more involved with tourism.
He envisions a historic walking tour of downtown New Albany, starting at the Carnegie Center for Art and History (which houses an Underground Railroad exhibit), leading to his church and maybe also stopping at the Culbertson Mansion.
“We’re really trying to network with other people,” he said. “We’re trying to put a little consortium together where we can work together a lot more than we have in the past.”
Marshall hopes the designation opens Second Baptist up to federal funding. The church has been undergoing renovations for several years — even receiving a new steeple — but there’s still work left to do, Marshall said.
For Peters, who has been researching black history in Floyd County for several years, the Network to Freedom designation is about shedding light on a hidden subject.
“The history of a minority is so often neglected,” she said.
Lisa Grant-Roberts, a member of Second Baptist Church and a black woman, has been hearing about her church’s relationship to the Underground Railroad since she was a child. Now, other people might get that chance.
“This is a proud moment,” she said.
Source: (Jeffersonville) News and Tribune, http://bit.ly/2sL1nKk
Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., http://www.newsandtribune.com