LOUISVILLE, Ky. (July 2015) – In an unassuming, two-story building on Shelby Street in downtown Louisville, Ky., Ed Hamilton toils at the craft that has made him famous throughout much of the country. Inside, the front room is brimming with clay models and drawings and tools of his trade.
Remnants of past works litter the tables and benches. There are no chairs or places to sit. There is no place to even set down a cup of coffee or note pad without carefully moving something aside.
July 2015 Cover
Upon entering, the gracious host disappears into a back room to retrieve a folding chair to offer his guest a place to sit. But when he returns, it is hard for him to even find a space a large enough to set up the chair.
This is a true artist’s studio that shouts genius of a master at work. It bleeds with creativity of a work in progress. It is the spiritual center of this sculptor’s world – where his hands and mind come together to create inspirational, life-size statues and bas-reliefs that tell stories of famous people and retrace histories of this nation’s struggles for freedom.
And now the Louisville native has been hired to create sculpture for Madison, Ind. – a bust – or possibly a full-figure statue – of the late Underground Railroad conductor George DeBaptiste to be placed in a city park that is still being planned on North Walnut Street. If completed, surprisingly it would be Hamilton’s first sculpture in Indiana.
Photo by Don Ward
Louisville, Ky., sculptor Ed Hamilton studies a small model of George DeBaptiste for an upcoming project to create a sculpture dedicated to the late Underground Railroad conductor. If completed, the sculpture would be erected in a park that is being planned for the Georgetown neighborhood of downtown Madison, Ind., where DeBaptiste once lived and operated his businesses in the early 19th century.
“I have read a lot about this man since this project came about, and I am very anxious to get started,” said Hamilton, 68.
Georgetown Park is still a dream of a committee of local residents, but that dream could soon begin to take shape in July if an expected property transfer is completed. Roger and Jane Williams, who own Royer Corp., a plastics manufacturing company on North Walnut Street, are in the process of purchasing two lots next to their building. The Williams plan to give one of the lots to the city of Madison for use as a public space to be called Georgetown Park – named in honor of the Georgetown neighborhood that once thrived in that part of downtown in the early 19th century.
While the land transfer has been held up for many months, Williams recently told the committee he believed the paperwork would be finalized in July.
“Roger has assured us that it’s a done deal, and that they just need to finish the legal matters,” said Dick Jones, 70, a member of the Georgetown Park committee and a City Councilman for District 1, which encompasses the neighborhood. “He said it would be in July, so because of that, we haven’t made any (fundraising) proposals to any potential large donors.”
An Ohio native and former administrator at Hanover College for 20 years, Jones is chairing the fundraising for the park. Jones has experience in fundraising, having chaired the drive to raise $155,000 in 2000 to restore the stained glass windows at the Christ Episcopal Church on Mulberry Street in Madison.
So far the Georgetown Park committee has raised $15,000 and secured a $30,000 pledge from the city of Madison. The city recently released $6,000 for a down payment to hire Hamilton and help get him started conceptualizing the sculpture of DeBaptiste. The total cost for the bust and foundation is $77,000, according to Connie Partington, another committee member who has pushed hard to make the park a reality.
Hamilton already has a large drawing of DeBaptiste sitting atop a pedestal that will serve as his inspiration for the future clay model he will construct as the basis for a bronze bust.
“There weren’t very many images available of DeBaptiste,” Hamilton explains. “The two or three that the historical society gave me show very different likenesses of him at different ages.”
Hamilton has selected an image of DeBaptiste and has done much research on his subject and the Under-ground Railroad activities of the times in the area. He says he always researches his subjects so he can get a feel for the person before beginning a project.
“It is a somewhat spiritual experience for me to get into the mind and times of my subjects,” he said.
Born in Fredericksburg, Va., DeBaptiste lived from 1814-1875. He studied to become a barber and worked as a personal servant to wealthy whites. As a free black born during slavery times, DeBaptiste lived the injustice of a country that allowed him to hold a job and buy a house, but treated others with skin as dark as his like objects to be sold, worked, beaten and resold.
Like other free blacks of his time, DeBaptiste would not sit idly by. After marrying, he and his wife moved to Madison in 1838. In Madison he was a respected businessman and became involved in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad. His activities soon caught the attention of local law enforcement, and DeBaptiste was cited under the Black Code laws, which threatened anyone abetting a fugitive slave with possible expulsion from the state.
Photo by Don Ward
This vacant lot next to Royer Corp. on North Walnut Street in Madison, Ind., is the site of a future park, where the sculpture of George DeBaptiste would be erected.
Not one to cower in the face of unfair laws, DeBaptiste refused to comply, and the case went to the Indiana Supreme Court on DeBaptiste’s assertion that the Black Codes were unconstitutional. Though the justices did not agree with his view on the Black Codes, they did agree to let DeBaptiste remain in the state.
As a result of his action, DeBaptiste became the personal steward to Gen. William Henry Harrison. In 1841, when Harrison was elected president, DeBaptiste accompanied him and became a White House steward. His stay was shortlived because Harrison died after just two months in office.
DeBaptiste returned to Madison but soon found life there too hostile. His abolitionist activities made him a target of harassment. So in 1845 DeBaptiste moved his family to Detroit, where he operated a barbershop, then later a bakery and invested in a steamship that made regular runs on the Detroit River. He later sold the ship and began a catering business. He eventually bought some land outside of Detroit where he built a house and opened a restaurant and dance hall. All the while, he continued to fight for and support blacks’ rights.
DeBaptiste died of stomach cancer in 1875 at age 57, leaving a legacy of activism and courage that continues to inspire others. At the time of his death, all of DeBaptiste’s children except a teenage son and a daughter had died. His first wife, Maria Lucinda Lee, died years before he did. He later remarried and his second wife survived him.
His obituary praised his efforts to improve the lives of African Americans and to
help black children gain access to the same public schools as whites. He lived long enough to celebrate the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, giving voting rights to all people regardless of race, color or prior history of being a slave. Today, a monument about the Underground Railroad in Detroit features DeBaptiste’s image.
Ed Hamilton (far right) takes a look at Madison’s Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Monument during a visit in February.
In 2011, meanwhile, Indiana Landmarks placed the house on North Jefferson Street in Madison that was believed to be where DeBaptiste once lived on its “10 Most Endangered Sites” in Indiana. It was a Federal style brick house in disrepair, and area preservationists had high hopes they were onto something significant.
Nyberg, too, said he was impressed with Hamilton’s genuine interest in the community in which he works. “He likes to get to know the people of the community and get their input on a project before he begins working on it, and I think that’s pretty neat.”
Owners Charles Requet III and his wife, Elizabeth Auxier, began working with local preservationists to save the house. The couple created a nonprofit organization – the George DeBaptiste Underground Railroad Society Inc. – to generate funds to save it and possibly turn it into a museum for the public. They obtained a $2,500 matching grant from Indiana Landmarks’ African American Heritage Fund to help stabilize the property.
But after scientific dating was done to the wood structure by Darrin Rubino, associate professor of biology at Hanover College, it was determined that the house was built after DeBaptiste had left Madison. So in April 2014, Requet obtained approval from the city to demolish the dilapidated house for safety reasons, according to Auxier. The bricks were salvaged.
“I know several preservationists were excited about the house being DeBaptiste’s, but it wasn’t to be,” Auxier said. “It may have been his property but not his home.”
Hamilton’s bust, meanwhile, will feature a plaque telling a brief history of this legendary figure of Madison, Hamilton said. While it is still early in the planning stages, he said he has become fascinated with DeBaptiste’s story.
“I really did not know anything about Madison or DeBaptiste before this,” he said. In fact, Hamilton made his first ever trip to Madison in February to meet with local historians and park committee members.
John Nyberg, executive director of the Jefferson County Historical Society, led Hamilton and his wife, Bernadette, on brief a walking tour of downtown, including a stop at Madison’s only large sculpture – the Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Monument on the east lawn of the Jefferson County Jail. Created by Norwegian-born American sculptor Sigvald Asbjornsen, the sculpture was dedicated in 1907. It was cleaned and rededicated in 1991. Hamilton said he was quite impressed with the work.
Hamilton also has discovered many commonalities between DeBaptiste’s life and his own. For instance, DeBaptiste was a barber, and Hamilton’s mother was a barber and his father a tailor. The park is located on Walnut Street, and Hamilton said he grew up on Walnut Street in Louisville.
“I thought that was rather unique and interesting,” Hamilton said.
For the DeBaptiste statue, Hamilton said he wants to portray “the importance of this man – who he was and why he did what he did. It takes a strong person to right a wrong and stand up to something.”
In addition, Hamilton says he tries to impart a lesson through his sculptures and educate the public on his subjects. “I try to express why it is relevant today. Here is a person who devoted his life to help others – that’s what humanity is all about. They do so in hopes a new day will be born because of what they’ve done.”
While Hamilton is still getting a feel for the DeBaptiste project, park committee members are anxiously awaiting the land transfer so that they can begin the fundraising in earnest, Jones said. “Once Roger has possession of the land, he said he would immediately deed it over to the city, and then we can start reaching out to donors. The city has promised to clean up the site and dig up the old pavement and remove the fencing so we can start developing the park site.”
Jones and Partington both said they were delighted to have Hamilton agree to create the statue, considering his talent and fame.
“He is a wonderful sculptor, as evidenced by his many great works in Louisville and other cities,” Partington said. “I have seen his work, and I think it’s outstanding. And he’s very interested in African American history. We are fortunate to have him, and I just hope we can get the project moving quickly so we can start him working on the bust for us.”
Jones added, “We know there is another group that has approached Mr. Hamilton about doing a project for them, and we want to move quickly so we don’t lose this opportunity to do our project.”
The biggest changes will be the return to a three-day event, with the addition of Grand Prix West hydroplanes that will compete in addition to the popular Unlimiteds, and the return to the longer 2.5-mile course, since the Milton-Madison Bridge construction is now complete. The Regatta had to shorten the course and move it farther downriver in recent years due to the bridge construction.
Past Regatta President Nate Davis has taken the role of overseeing this boat racing card to complement the action on the Ohio River. The Regatta committee has announced that at least seven of these GP class boats have committed to the Madison race, with two more possible. Davis has obtained boat sponsors from many local businesses to help defray costs. GP boats are smaller than the Unlimiteds but use automotive engines and race on a shorter 12/3-mile course.
Meantime, at least 11 Unlimited hydroplane race boats are expected in Madison, including the ever-popular Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison, with second-year driver Jimmy Shane at the helm. The former Porter Racing driver from Havre de Grace, Md., made quick work in carving a name for himself last year by capturing the H1 Unlimited Series High Points Championship with a victory at Detroit.
H1 Unlimited moves to Tri-Cities, Wash., on July 24-26; then to Seattle for Seafair on July 31 – Aug. 2; then finishes at San Diego for Bayfair on Sept. 18-20.
The Madison Regatta Festival, meanwhile, kicks off Saturday, June 27, with Little Miss, Preteen and Teen pageants. The festival runs daily through race weekend, with live music, water ball fight, parade, 10K run, fireworks and much more (See schedule).
Admission wristbands are $25 and available at many local retailers, the tourism office and online at the event website: www.MadisonRegatta.com.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.