Hoosiers on the Underground: Library Program Explores the Underground Railroad in Indiana

Jeannie R. Regan-Dinius gave a presentation about the Underground Railroad in Indiana to a packed house of over 70 attendees at the Carnegie Library on Tuesday, August 23. Regan-Dinius is the Director of Special Initiatives for the Department of Natural Resource’s Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. Regan-Dinius employed a casual approach to her area of expertise, joking that she would do her best to cover over 300 years of history in only 40 minutes.

A full review of such a broad expanse of history may not have been possible given her short amount of time, but Regan-Dinius presented a fascinating picture of the Underground Railroad that was more in-depth than your average history class. Regan-Dinius explained that for folks living in Indiana during the 1800s, there was a clear difference between being simply anti-slavery and being an active abolitionist. The former class may not have owned slaves themselves, but many Hoosiers in this era were in favor of simply shipping slaves back to Africa rather than rigorously working to ensure that slavery was legally abolished.

Regan-Dinius shared some of the specific obstacles faced by slaves in Indiana, including the large presence of bounty hunters, the threat posed by indentured servitude, and the limited rights afforded to liberated slaves, even in “free” northern states. Over the course of the her lecture, Regan-Dinius made a point to spend time talking about lesser-known abolitionists from Indiana who are typically underrepresented in history books when compared to figures like Levi Coffin. Just a few of the historical figures whose stories she shared included Elijah Anderson (who she described as “Indiana’s Harriet Tubman equivalent”), Ira Caswell (a resident of Warrick County who thwarted bounty hunters attempting to kidnap freed slaves), and James Washington (a free black solicitor who helped provide money and resources to slaves as they moved through the Underground Railroad).

Regan-Dinius encouraged anyone with possible connections to historical figures involved in the Underground Railroad to search for documentation with the help of a historian. She explained that many of our families’ oral histories are steeped in myth, and that research can help uncover important stories about our state’s history. She also suggested the following list of books and resources for anyone interested in learning more about the Underground Railroad in Indiana:

Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana (2000) by Ronald L. Baker IN Freedom Trails The Liberty Line (1961) by Larry Garon The Underground Railroad (1872) by William Still

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