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Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

Black History Month -- Family came to Brazil via Underground Railroad

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Part 1 of 3

February is black History Month. It's a time to celebrate and honor the achievements and contributions made by African Americans to this country's economic, cultural, spiritual and political development.

Much has been written about the life of black Americans in the South both before and after the Civil War. Life was easier and safer for blacks in the North prompting many slaves to risk their lives trying to escape. After the Civil War there was an exodus of freed slaves from the South to the North.

Prejudice also existed north of the Mason-Dixon line, however. Perhaps more subtle than what was vented in the South but it was, and is still, there. It seems each generation dilutes the discrimination, but it is yet to be eradicated.

black Brazil native, Russell Barnett, was recently asked when and how his family settled in Brazil. He was also asked to describe what it was like living is a small, northern town in the Midwest and what it was like growing up black in the '50s.

Russ explained that when the Barnetts first came to Indiana they initially settled in the Carbon area then moved to Brazil. They came for the mining jobs. Russ, his father, Glenn Barnett and grandfather, Foster Barnett, all worked in the mines at one time or another.

According to a Biographical Sketch published in 1884 for the Counties of Clay and Owen, Russ's Grandfather Foster was born in Fluvanna County, Va., as a slave on May 9, 1851. He settled in Brazil in 1873 and worked in the coal mines. Married to Gracie Allen in 1877, Foster could neither read nor write. But he applied himself to books during his leisure time and learned to do both. Foster was very industrious and economical and saved his earnings from the mines. Eventually he and Gracie were able to own their own home.

According to Russ, his grandfather Foster first arrived in Indiana as a teen with his family via the Underground Railroad in the early 1870s.

An historical search indicated that the Underground Railroad stopped at the end of the Civil War when slavery was abolished. But Russ said he's been told repeatedly by aunts, uncles and old family friends that the Underground Railroad continued for years after the war to help many freed black families travel north.

The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It was a secret, loosely constructed network of escape routes used to help runaway slaves or free black families get to the North. Its name was derived partly from the need for secrecy, using darkness or disguise. The slaves moved about almost entirely by night and they hid during the day.

Railroad terms were used in processing the system. Hiding places were called stations. People who helped transport the runaways were known as conductors. The routes were dubbed lines and fugitive slaves were designated as packages or freight.

Russ recalled hearing stories as to why the Underground Railroad continued after the Civil War was over. Slavery was officially abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December, 1865. But in many parts of the South the newly freed slaves labored under conditions similar to those existing before the war.

According to "Life After the 13th Amendment" on the Internet, post war legislatures passed laws designed to keep blacks in poverty and in positions of servitude. Under so-called black codes, ex-slaves who had no steady employment could be arrested and ordered to pay stiff fines. Those who could not pay the fines were hired out as virtual slaves. And in some areas, black children could be forced to serve as apprentices in local industries.

And while slavery was illegal, murder was also illegal. But the murder of blacks was a law that was seldom enforced in the South after the war.

The feelings of superiority and intense dislike of blacks by the southern whites increased after the war. The physical destruction of much of their homeland and the financial ruination of their economic structure caused by the loss of slave labor added fuel to the fires of hatred.

And because some blacks fought as soldiers in the northern army, all blacks were blamed for the injury or death of any neighbor, friend or loved one in the southern white communities.

Travel was very difficult at that time for the freed slaves who were looking for a better life. The many treacherous miles north were usually covered by foot. Food and shelter were scarce. There were no guarantees of safety. Many individual blacks and sometimes whole families simply "disappeared".

Russ says the Underground Railroad provided migrating blacks with food, shelter, clothing, sometimes a last name and a work record. It was easier for a black man to get a job in the North if he could show that he'd had experience in a free labor market. So the job records were very important. Assisting the freed blacks to the North safely was why the Underground Railroad continued for years after the war ended.

Tomorrow: Russ Barnett describes his life growing up in the North, black in the 50s.

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