The “Underground Railroad” was a network of people and places in the United States of America, prior to its 1861-1865 Civil War, or “War Between the States”. It was dedicated to helping people of African extraction, held in slavery in those states where slavery was legal, to escape bondage and move north beyond the reach of the U.S. fugitive slave law and of slave-catchers. It was “underground” in that it was hidden, and a “railroad” in that it moved people. The Ohio River forms the boundary between the states of Kentucky, where slavery was legal, and the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, where it was not (but where fugitive slaves could still be caught). Therefore the area around the Ohio River Valley was home to a lot of Underground Railroad and related anti-slavery activity.
Madison, Indiana sits on the river. It was home to a community of free African-Americans, who constructed a church in 1850 that still stands. The area was also home to people of European extraction who were part of the Underground Railroad, such as Delia Webster, whose home was just south of Madison, across the river in Kentucky, and to Thomas Craven, who in the 1850s founded Eleutherian College just north of Madison, in Lancaster. Eleutherian College taught people regardless of race — the name references the Greek word “eleutheros “, meaning “freedom and equality”.
The college ceased operation in the 1880s, but one of its buildings still stands. This is despite the building, which served as a public grade school from the 1880s through the 1930s, being all but abandoned for much of the twentieth century. A discussion of the building by Hugh Smith in the February 1994 issue of the Black History News and Notes of the Indiana Historical Society describes the building at that time:
Most doors and hardware have been removed or destroyed…. Vandalism, including graffiti almost a century old, has affected all rooms, but the primary damage to the building has been caused by water. Exposure has produced fallen plaster ceilings, rotted joists, and peeled paint. Although presently repaired, particularly severe leakage through the belfry has progressively weakened a section at least two levels beneath it. Discolored stones at ground level are evidence of rising water, and mold growth on the shaded north elevation reflects other problems attributable to moisture.
Nevertheless, Smith wrote, “the building retains most of its original materials”. That is because the building, “containing classrooms, a library, and a chapel,” was built to last. A reason for this remarkable construction is suggested by the 1915 Centennial History and Handbook of Indiana:
A college, called Eleutherian College, was founded in 1850 by Elder Thomas Craven and his son, John G. Craven, at Lancaster. A church, in which the college was housed, and boarding houses were burned by the neighbors to whom the ideas [regarding “the co-education of white and colored students”] were obnoxious, and rebuilt many times. Stone buildings were at last erected and stood….
In other words, the building had to be built to last, because those neighbors would have brought it down if they could.
In 1990, the building was purchased for restoration. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and since then various efforts to restore the building have borne fruit. It is now in pretty good shape, as the photos here of the outside and inside testify.
Eleutherian College was always small — never surpassing much more than 150 students — and there is limited information about what was taught there. From what information is available, it is clear that the college had a focus on science. Smith reports that when the chapel building was constructed in 1854, the school, which had previously not offered college-level courses, began to do so. “Affiliated with the Baptist community,” Smith writes, “the curriculum emphasized a ‘classical’ education preparing students as teachers or as ministers. In addition to Greek and Latin, math, science, and music were offered.” A thorough internet search for information on Eleutherian turns up John Metcalf Smith, who served as professor of “mixed mathematics and natural sciences” at Eleutherian for two years, starting in 1857.
Science appears in William Taylor Stott’s discussion of Eleutherian College in his Indiana Baptist History, 1798-1908. Stott, who had been president of the Baptist Franklin College in Indiana, focuses on Eleutherian especially in regard to Moses Broyles: “if this school had done nothing else, it amply justified its existence in that it gave a liberal training to Moses Broyles, a negro who became a real Moses to his negro Baptist brethren of Indiana”. Broyles was a man of remarkable abilities. Stott writes:
Among all the negro Baptists of Indiana the first place, without question, belongs to the Rev. Moses Broyles, for he was an efficient factor in the development of the Second church, Indianapolis, in founding other churches in and out of that city, and in helping forward the Baptist cause among his brethren of the state.
Stott notes that in 1876 Broyles published a pamphlet which gave a brief sketch of his own life, and of the history of the Second church and some other churches, including,
[Broyles’] struggles for an education, and his joy when at last he reached Eleutherian College in Jefferson county, Indiana, in 1854. He was sold as a slave when he was four years old and taken from his home in Maryland to Tennessee; he was again sold to a slave owner of Kentucky, by the name of Broyles. He gave such satisfaction to this man by his industry and general care of all things entrusted to him, that he… was granted many of the privileges ordinarily granted to white children only. He learned to read, was a welcome attendant at the school-house debates; finally he was asked to take a part, and this greatly intensified his desire for learning. While yet a slave he read the New Testament through five times, and the whole Bible twice; he also read the United States Constitution, a history of the United States, Mosheim’s Church history, some of Alexander Campbell’s writings and Benedict’s History of the Baptists. When he was fourteen years old his master told him that if he would serve him well till 1854 he would set him free. He remained in service till 1851 when he proposed to the master that he would buy the rest of the time; this the master agreed to, and although he had considerable of sickness he paid the amount agreed upon… and had $300 left with which he began a course of education. He remained in Eleutherian College, referred to above, three years, in which time he was well advanced in Latin, Greek and some of the sciences.
Latin, Greek, and science. There are other tangential science-and-Indiana-Baptist connections in this story. Stott’s book reveals that he was himself a professor of physical sciences at Franklin, which also had Miss R. J. Thompson as professor of history and physical science — and that she went on to become the chair of mathematics in 1873.
What a remarkable thing human history is. In the nineteenth century, when plenty of people were invoking science to “prove” that women and people of African ancestry were lesser, and their positions in society justified by the available data, others were charting a completely different course. And what a remarkable thing our modern world is, when a person can pull over to see a little-known historic building in a rural area — and then, with merely a bit of time searching online for information about that building, that person can discover all this history, with those women and people of African ancestry, like Moses Broyles and Miss R. J. Thompson, studying and mastering science.