In the early and mid-1800s, Louisville was a place where enslaved people were bought and sold. Some of those enslaved people were able to escape their captors and make their way across the river to Indiana — a free state — connecting with people who helped make up the Underground Railroad.
One of the first places many traveled to was the Second Presbyterian Church, also known as the Town Clock Church, at 300 E. Main St. in New Albany, whose tall steeple was visible from Portland’s shores. That church is still in use as the Second Baptist Church, and behind it is now the Underground Railroad Gardens that celebrate the church’s heritage.
Recently added to the Gardens is a unique sculpture, “Winged Man” by celebrated local sculptor Barney Bright.
“When you think about the scourge of slavery and what the folks who were enslaved were going through … that those freedom seekers who were willing to risk everything to run to escape slavery and be free,” said Jerry Finn, treasurer of the Friends of the Town Clock Church.
“They have to go through leaving family, oftentimes risking their lives, many that don’t ever make it and are recaptured,” he continued. “You know, it’s just an incredible, beautiful and poignant piece that really kind of sums up, to me, the feelings they must have gone through.”
The statue’s history is unfortunately steeped in tragedy. The piece was commissioned by Louisville philanthropist and then-owner of WAVE-TV Jane Morton Norton. Her husband, George W. Norton III, was killed in a car accident in 1964. Three months later, her son, George W. Norton IV, who had just taken over WAVE for his father, also was killed in a car accident.
Jane Norton commissioned “Winged Man” in honor of the father and son and had it placed at WAVE-3 Park, behind the station on South Floyd Street, for many years. Jane Norton died in 1979.
Sculptor Barney Bright was born in Shelby County, Ky., and is best known for creating the Louisville Clock. He died in Louisville in 1997.
“Winged Man” was damaged — its weight-bearing leg broken — so it was in storage for the last few years.
According to Finn, Julie Schweitzer, executive director of ArtSeed in New Albany, is a Bright fan, and she knew this sculpture has been removed from the WAVE-3 Gardens.
The Friends of the Town Clock Church, a group that has been working for years on restoring the historic church, got in touch with Ken Selvaggi, program director at WAVE, who said the station was willing to donate the sculpture to be used in the Underground Railroad Garden.
The group worked with the Falls Art Foundry to have the sculpture repaired. Scott Boyer of Falls Art had studied under Bright at the Bright Foundry, making the organization a perfect fit to repair the work of art.
The Friends of the Town Clock Church raised the funds to have it repaired and placed in the Underground Railroad Garden.
“It’s just this incredibly beautiful piece,” Finn said. “It gives you a sense of pain, of death, as well as a sense of hope and resurrection.”
The Friends of the Town Clock Church have raised more than $780,000 to restore the historic church in New Albany. Finn, along with Irv Stumler and Alice Miles, began the group to restore the historic landmark and preserve its history.
“The congregation is a small, elderly, African-American congregation,” Finn said. “Some of them can actually trace their roots all the way back to the early 1800s, where some of their family members were free blacks or slaves who worshipped there in that church.”
Second Presbyterian was built in 1852. Members founded the church after the Presbyterian Schism of 1837, which was based on the belief or disbelief of revivalism. The schism later widened because the New School Presbyterian churches were more progressive and anti-slavery than the Old School churches.
“They broke away because First Presbyterian believed slavery was wrong, but God would take care of it in God’s own time,” Finn explained. “In the Second Presbyterian group, they felt like maybe God need a little help, so they were actively involved.”
Unfortunately, most people involved in the Underground Railroad did not keep written records, but clues left behind have helped historians piece together what likely happened.
Even though Indiana was a free state, it was still illegal to help a freed slave because it was considered helping steal someone else’s property. But one member of the church, James Brooks, was the president of the New Albany and Salem Railroad. The railroad went from New Albany to Michigan City, Ind., and Brooks had the authority to give railroad tickets to freedom seekers to help them escape north, said Finn.
A conductor, James Hines, was the only person who had the authority to keep anyone off a train, and he was known to do so when police were chasing runaway slaves. Finn said he’s seen articles in the Louisville papers about Hines allowing freedom seekers onto the train — but not the police. One article, he said, describes the police being able to see the people they were trying to chase but were unable to catch, thanks to Hines.
In 1915, the church’s tower was struck by lightning and split in two. The congregation at the time replaced it with a cupola, which was much shorter than the original spire.
The Friends of the Town Clock Church added a replica steeple and clock in 2016, restoring it back to its original 160-foot height, a historical beacon for those seeking freedom. The cupola, itself 101 years old, was recently placed atop a gazebo in the Gardens.
Though the “Winged Man” statue originally was designed to represent a father and son who were taken to the afterlife, it now stands in honor of those who broke free from the shackles of human bondage.
A Barney Bright Dedication Ceremony will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 24, from 10 a.m.-noon at the Second Baptist Church, 300 E. Main St. in New Albany.