This weekend, as Black History Month comes to a close, those who visit Bethel AME Cathedral will have an opportunity to travel back to a time when a movement of freedom-loving Americans worked together to fight slavery.
It was a time when glimmers of hope shined through a scenario that seemed hopeless for most African-Americans.
On Feb. 28 and March 1, Bethel will host the Indianapolis Station Underground Railroad Re-enactment Experience. Designed to be as historically accurate as possible, the re-enactment will highlight Bethel’s involvement with the Underground Railroad.
“This place has so much history, and it’s bigger than the church,” said Rev. Carey Grady, pastor of Bethel. “We just wanted to share that history with the entire community. We want to be stewards of our history and help bring some racial harmony as we tell the story, because a lot of people, Black and white, don’t know about this part of our city’s history.”
Established in 1836, Bethel is the oldest surviving predominantly African-American church in Indianapolis. The church is part of the Network to Freedom program of the National Park Service.
Historical accounts indicate that Bethel was among places in more than 20 Indiana counties that were part of the Underground Railroad, an organized system designed to assist runaway slaves.
Many individuals – Black and white – were part of the network of homes, businesses and other places that helped shelter slaves as they escaped from Southern states to the North and Canada. Sometimes the slaves were hidden in the cargo of wagons, at other times they had to travel by foot.
“All kinds of things could come against youth, such as starvation, because you could not stop at a restaurant or someone’s house, as well as tiredness, the weather and wild animals,” said Ophelia Wellington, founder of Freetown Village, a group of actors, singers and performers who re-enact moments in African-American history.
“Imagine being hungry and you have people chasing after you and you may not even know where you are,” added Wellington. “The biggest challenge was being detected and captured, because once that happened you could be maimed, punished or resold. You had to deal with the defeat of trying to better your condition and failing.”
Volunteers in the network usually only knew of local efforts to aid the slaves, and not the overall operation so that it could not be compromised. Still, they placed themselves at risk by getting involved with it. It is estimated that between 1810 and 1850, the South lost more than 100,000 slaves due largely to the Underground Railroad.
It is believed Bethel first became actively involved in anti-slavery efforts in the late 1840s, and harbored fugitive slaves, causing anger from many people in the city. It is believed that slavery supporters set a fire that nearly destroyed the church in 1862. By 1867, Bethel rebuilt its edifice, which still stands today.
Despite putting themselves in harm’s way, the Bethel congregation remained committed to freedom, and the church was later used to register Black soldiers for the Civil War, teach African-American students, and was where several organizations were established, including the local chapter of the NAACP and the Indiana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
After discovering new details about Bethel’s unique experience with researchers and graduate students from the public history department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Carey realized that the church’s history needed to be shared publicly in an engaging way.
“I love the arts, and felt the re-enactment would be a great way to showcase our involvement,” Grady said. “It was a vision from God, really, and a great way to share this history with a lot of young people who may not be familiar with it.”
Although the idea for the re-enactment originated with Grady, in an effort to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible, Bethel has produced it in partnership with The Indiana Humanities Council, IUPUI and Freetown Village.
Freetown Village happily agreed to partner with Bethel for the re-enactment, since it has often referenced the church in many of its programs.
“This fits with our mission of bringing history to life,” Wellington said. “This helps tell a really good story about freedom seekers, and we are happy to be a part of it.”