The Long Journey

An Underground Railroad Site Is on Track to Becoming a Museum.

After more than 50 years, classes are being held in the school again.

Credit: Vicki Fewell, Historic Eleutherian, Inc.)

An Indiana school founded by early abolitionists—one that served as a station on the Underground Railroad and was among the first colleges in the nation to admit students on a gender- and race-blind basis—has received the break it needs.

Early last month, the group that owns the Eleutherian College in Madison, Ind., a National Historic Landmark since 1997 and one of this year's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, experienced a high point in its 15-year effort to refurbish the structure when it received a $525,000 federal Community Block grant, distributed by the State of Indiana. This grant will help the building, a modest, three-story stone structure on a hill just north of the Ohio River, toward eventual renovation—a $2 million endeavor that will transform Eleutherian into an educational and museum space chronicling its history.

The college was the brainchild of progressive New Englanders who had migrated to the Madison area during the 1820s to participate in the industrial and commercial development of the Midwest. Supported by an ongoing relationship with fellow anti-discrimination advocates from the East Coast—among them the abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison—the Madison settlers began working to establish a similar movement in Indiana. In 1856 this movement came to fruition—the group erected the Eleutherian College building, naming it for "eleutheros," the Greek term for freedom and equality.

During its heyday in the late 1850s and 1860s, the college, a teacher-training school, enrolled about 200 students—African American and white, male and female—from around the country. Its 1860s-era board of directors included three women and one African American man, which was unheard of at that time. It operated as a teacher's college until 1887, then as an elementary school until 1937, when financial constraints forced the institution to close. 

Classroom today

Credit: Vicki Fewell

After more than 50 years of neglect—general disrepair, compounded by vandalism—the Greek Revival building was rediscovered in the late 1980s by two local women, Jae Breitweiser and Dottie Reindollar. Intrigued by the vacant structure's simple charm, they purchased it in 1990 from Historic Madison, the local historical society that maintained the property, and began investigating the options for its restoration.

"When we first bought it, we didn't really know what we had," says Breitweiser, who now heads the board of directors at Historic Eleutherian, Inc., the nonprofit that manages the building. "We started to research its history, and began to understand the immense significance that it had, at both a local and a national level."

The "tracks" of the Underground Railroad, the 19th-century slave-escape route, ran for thousands of miles, stretching from the Southern states west into Iowa and Missouri and north into Canada, crisscrossing the country like a web. The National Park Service's Network to Freedom program, a federally funded initiative launched in 1997 to protect sites associated with the Underground Railroad, includes hundreds of former slave colonies, hiding places, and safe-houses that harbored escapees en route to freedom.

Eleutherian College, which the Park Service selected for inclusion its program after Breitweiser and Reindollar purchased the building, was one of these sites: in addition to admitting free blacks and former slaves, the college was one of the only structures in the largely pro-slavery section of southern Indiana to house and aid runaways. In the Underground Railroad's peak years, during the late 1850s, the college's then-president and several staff members were repeatedly arrested for their participation in slave-harboring.

Today, Eleutherian's guardians face a different sort of impediment. Financing, Breitweiser has found, was—and continues to be—the most prominent challenge in undertaking any comprehensive renovation plan. The Network to Freedom program's initial seed-donation is steadily dwindling. In 2001, the building was awarded a $200,000 Save America's Treasures grant, and local historical organizations and private citizens have contributed, but the project still falls short of its $2 million goal. 

College chapel

Credit: Vicki Fewell

In recent months, however, assistance has been slightly more forthcoming, due in large part to the Trust's addition of the building to the 11 Most list in June. The Trust's Chicago-based Midwest Office is collaborating with Breitweiser and her 20-member board to create an endowment for the building, focusing not only on its upcoming renovation but also on its upkeep. And earlier this year, nearby Hanover College launched a program to study the Ohio River, using Eleutherian as a classroom facility.

"Just taking care of the property is a major first step," says Genell Scheurell, program coordinator at the Trust's Midwest Office, who is assisting Breitweiser and her supporters in the endowment arrangement. "The place is such a fabulous resource, but it has suffered from decreased funding as the years have gone by. Creating an endowment will give us some leverage."

The arrangement with Hanover College is exhilarating, Breitweiser says. "The kids want to learn about the building and help it," she says of the project, which, although it does not involve financial support, has reestablished public interest in the structure. "It's so good to see people sitting there, on those benches, because we want it to be a teaching space again. That was what its founders wanted."

The biggest boost, though, was November's grant. Breitweiser hopes that it will finally allow her to focus on more urgent rehab issues—repairing the building's leaking ceiling, fixing the water-damaged belfry, and eradicating algae and moss from the outside walls—that must be tackled before developing a formal blueprint for renovation.

"The slow pace of things can get frustrating," Breitweiser says, "but we're moving ahead, with research and with renovation. That's what's so interesting about the project—that it's still unfolding and getting better and better as it goes."  

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