Exploring Henry Bibb

Hanover College exhibit
reveals era of Underground Railroad

Artifacts, speakers part of program
from local archaeology dig

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(November 2009) – Doug Denne believes there is a vast number of stories that haven’t been told about the Underground Railroad and related events in the area. So convinced is he that these oral histories will die if not properly preserved, he has created an exhibit on anti-slavery initiatives in Jefferson County, Ind., before the Civil War.

Henry Bibb Exhibit

Photo by Cristina Evans

The exhibit contains many books,
clippings and documents.

“One facet of the exhibit is about Henry Bibb,” said Denne, Archivist and Curator of Rare Books for Hanover College. “Bedford was the last place Bibb was a slave.”
Bibb’s story is important in putting a local spin on the Under-ground Railroad and understanding how slavery affected this area. Bibb was a slave until he escaped north to Cincinnati on Christmas Day in 1837. From there, he traveled to Perrysburg, Ohio, and returned to Bedford the next spring to free his wife and daughter. The family was caught and thrown into a workhouse in Louisville.
Two years later came another chance for freedom. He eventually wound up in Detroit and began sharing his story at conventions and through newspaper columns, becoming a popular antislavery speaker. He settled in Canada with a second wife, Mary Miles, and became Canada’s first black newspaper editor.
Denne was part of a public dig that took place Sept. 19 at the Gatewood Plantation in Bedford. Six students from Hanover College participated in the dig, as well as John Smith, who has taught English for more than 30 years at Hanover College. In his role of teaching an African American literary course, Smith was drawn to the project as well.
“We’re just scratching the surface on the stuff that’s out there,” said Denne. The exhibit is titled, “Get Me to the Promised Land! Jefferson County and the Struggle to Abolish Slavery,” and is currently on display until Dec. 18 on the second floor of the Duggan Library at Hanover College.

Doug Denne

Doug Denne

Denne said he wants to display exhibits that will “cater to the community. Exhibits are a way to get the word out on what we have in our repository that people can research.”
In addition to the Henry Bibb project being an on-going project for Hanover College, it is also an on-going project for the Oldham County History Center in La Grange, Ky. The History Center participated in the dig and lent some artifacts for the exhibit.
Nancy Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County History Center, will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Hanover College. “I will talk about the Henry Bibb Project and all of the research we have done that authenticates his story and the places he visited or lived,” said Theiss.
Earlier that day, at 4 p.m., archaeologist Jeannine Kreinbrink will speak and lead a session on the cleaning of artifacts. Kreinbrink “is the leading expert in our region for pre-Civil War sites,” said Theiss.
The type of artifacts found at the Gatewood site date to the early 19th century and include pottery shards, nails and glass. The site was occupied by several families over a span of 200 years.
The items lent by the History Center for the “Get Me to the Promised Land!” exhibit include some original documents on William Gatewood, who enslaved Bibb, said Theiss. Gatewood was a Justice of the Peace for Oldham County before Trimble County was formed in 1836.
“We have documents with Gatewood’s signature as Justice of the Peace, plus he was indicted for hiring out one of his slaves, Mahala,” said Theiss.
Denne said a grant was written two years ago and funding received from the Community Foundation of Madison-Jefferson County to get this project started.
Bibb’s story is just one of many that would go unheard were it not for people like Denne and Theiss. “The significance of the dig at the Gatewood site is that it contributes to our knowledge of slavery in our area prior to the Civil War and it contributes to Henry Bibb’s history as a very important figure in the abolition and separatist movement of the early 19th century,” Theiss said.
Getting these stories out is really important, said Denne. Because the Underground Railroad was secretive, not a lot of documentation exists to tell the whole story.
Denne said he hopes this exhibit will spur people to view it and get involved in uncovering what stories do exist and preserve them for future generations. The exhibit contains local and national slavery era documents, such as a signed copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a copy of the Frederick Douglas slave narrative, a first edition of Levi Coffin’s narratives and Bibb’s 1849 narratives.
“Get Me to the Promised Land!” will be followed by an exhibit on modern slavery titled, “Invisible: Slavery Today.” This traveling exhibit from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati will be on display from January through February 2010.
The current exhibit is free. “If teachers bring students to see it, we’ll pay for busing and student lunches,” Denne said.

• For more information, contact Doug Denne at (812) 866-7181 or visit: http://library.hanover.edu/home.html.

Back to November 2009 Articles.



Copyright 1999-2015, Kentuckiana Publishing, Inc.

Pick-Up Locations Subscribe Staff Advertise Contact Submit A Story Our Advertisers Columnists Archive Area Links Area Events Search our Site Home Monthly Articles Calendar of Events Kentucky Speedway Madison Chautauqua Madison Ribberfest Madison Regatta