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Ripley County historical signs

New historical markers
to trace Underground Railroad

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

VERSAILLES, Ind. (March 2004) – In 1949 Ripley County received its first Indiana historical marker. This May, 55 years later, the county will receive its fifth and sixth. The Indiana Historical Bureau in December approved two markers commemorating the county’s role in the Underground Railroad.
The first marker, to be dedicated at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 15, will be placed next to the canon on the Ripley County courthouse square. The second will be dedicated later the same day at 2 p.m. and will be placed next to the flagpole at the Union Baptist Church on Flat Rock Road in Jackson Township.

Anitra Larae

Photo provided

Anitra Larae with a sign she designed.

Both markers have also been approved by Indiana Freedom Trails, a community-based, statewide organization established to complete the archival research necessary to identify the sites, structures and individuals involved in the Underground Railroad.
“It’s been a long process but well worth it,” said project director Diane Perrine Coon, who along with more than 100 people from Ripley County worked for several years on the project.
A prospectus featuring six possible sites was submitted to the IHB in September 2002, but over the course of a year, all but two were rejected. This was because the criteria for Freedom Trails is stringent and requires authenticated documentation of each site, according to Coon. Much of the history relating to the Ripley sites was through oral tradition, passed along from generation to generation but not verifiable by traditional research methods, she said.
Research and funding for inclusion of the Indiana heritage markers in Ripley County was made possible by a grant from the Rising Sun Regional Foundation and the Gilmore and Gilda Reynolds Foundation. Also involved with the project has been the Ripley County Tourism Bureau.
Now being engraved, the markers will look the same as other historic markers throughout the state, except for the insignia, designed by Anitra Larae Donahue, that identifies them as part of Indiana Freedom Trails.
The marker to be placed at Union Baptist Church will commemorate the Union Church at Flat Rock, which was founded in 1843 as an anti-slavery congregation affiliated with the Freewill Baptist denomination. On one side the marker will read: August 12, 1843, Union Church organized as Freewill Baptist church at home of Harvey Marshall. Church covenant states: “We cannot receive slaveholders into this church nor those who believe that slavery is right.” First church building completed 1859 near here. In 1914, members changed denomination and name of church. New Church built here 1921.
The opposite side will read: Strong anti-slavery stance of Freewill Baptist churches contributed to end of slavery and freedom for those enslaved. The Underground Railroad refers to a widespread network of diverse people in the 19th century who aided slaves escaping to freedom from the southern United States.
The marker to be placed at the courthouse will commemorate the leadership of Stephen S. Harding of Old Milan, Franklin Township, in organizing county, state and national anti-slavery political movements.
One side will read: Born 1808 Ontario County, New York. Moved with family to Ripley County, 1820. Prominent abolitionist and orator, delivered powerful anti-slavery speeches throughout the area, often against public sentiment. Was active in Liberty Party and Republican Party. Received several appointments from President Abraham Lincoln. Died February 12, 1891.
The opposite side will read: Harding was an early leader in the opposition to slavery, helping to bring freedom to enslaved people in U.S. Stephen Selwyn Harding, an attorney in Versailles whose home in Old Milan was stop No. 7 on the Underground Railroad route from Aurora, was appointed Governor of Utah Territory and later Chief Justice of the Colorado and Utah Territorial Supreme Court by Abraham Lincoln. Several artifacts from Harding’s home and office are displayed in the Ripley County Historical Society Museum.
In conjunction with the historic marker dedication, the Ripley County Historical Society will open in its museum a Stephen S. Harding room, which will contain artifacts collected by the society relating to the historical figure.
“We’re hoping it will be ready on May 15 at the time of the dedication,” said Coon. Also being prepared are automobile tour routes from Versailles to Flat Rock and from Versailles to Old Milan. The tours will be marked by signage, and available will be accompanying brochures and CDs describing in narrative form the area’s Underground Railroad events and people.
Other southern Indiana Freedom Trails sites include in Jefferson County Historic Eleutherian College and the Lyman-Hoyt House in Lancaster and the Georgetown district in Madison, Ind.

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