Grant Update: Town Clock Church Remains a Local Beacon of Hope

photo courtesy of Friends of Town Clock Church

In today’s environment, the Town Clock Church, which is nestled on the corner of East Third and Main Street in New Albany, may just look like any ordinary clock tower found in a historic small town.

But for many in this area, that 171-year-old structure signifies so much more than its timekeeping abilities. Instead, it is a reminder about the triumph of the human spirit in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For everyone of that period, the 150-foot tower – adorned with four clock faces that can be seen from all directions – was the official timepiece of the area. According to the tower’s official history, riverboats and their crew along the Ohio River used it not only as a guide, but also a keeper of the hours.

But for the African American community, the church and its grand spire stood as a symbol of resistance to slavery and a haven for freedom seekers. Shielded by the dark of night, it is believed many runaway enslaved people used the church’s 10-story tall steeple as a guide toward an Underground Railroad station.

In subtle – and not so subtle – ways, the Town Clock Church has guided the community since 1852, serving as a statement of all that is good in humanity, according to the church.

In 2013, urgent repairs and renovations were required to restore and preserve the structure. With estimates nearing $400,000 for the project, the church launched a community-wide drive to restore the significant and historic landmark, which included collaborating with the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana.

With an initial gift of $5,000 toward the renovation, a link between the Friends of the Town Clock Church – a nonprofit established for ongoing maintenance, beautification, and long-term planning for the building – and CFSI was formed.

Ten years and more than $20,000 in grant funding from CFSI later, the contributions from both entities are still positively contributing to the life and landscape of the Southern Indiana community.

Town Clock Church’s Rich History

It all started with a difference in philosophy regarding the abolishment of slavery.

The Second Presbyterian Church – now known as the Second Baptist Church and nicknamed “Town Clock Church” – aligned itself with the progressive movement of the time. The church believes early members risked death daily by actively engaged in the hiding, feeding, medical care, and transport of enslaved people from areas of danger to freedom.

Geographically, the Kentuckiana region posed a unique anomaly. With just the mile-wide Ohio River separating Floyd County, Indiana (a northern free state) from Louisville, Kentucky (a southern slave state), the difference in the two lands for an African American during this time was night and day.

Just across the river from New Albany, men, women, and children were sold on the auction blocks in the wharf area and transported via river trade upon their purchase. From this location, they could have seen the 10-story tall steeple – a haunting reminder of just how close they were to freedom.

photo courtesy of Friends of Town Clock Church

Built by Isaac P. Smith, the structure was erected in 1852 in the Ionic order of the Greek Revival Style. And thanks to its 150-foot steeple and an intentional location along the banks of the Ohio River, the church eventually became a beacon of hope to freedom-seekers who could see it from neighboring riverbanks.

It was once speculated that the basement was the main corridor used to hide or keep fugitives from danger. While that theory cannot be validated one way or another, there is proof that the church’s Lecture Room held the food, clothing, and bandages that were later administered by members of the congregation to the freedom-seekers. These abolitionists helped obtain medical care for many of the enslaved people – who were in dire need of treatment – before they could continue their road to freedom.

In addition to caring for the newly-freed enslaved people, church records and court documents also revealed that the pastors of Second Presbyterian baptized, married, and buried African Americans.

Almost 25 years after slavery was abolished in the United States, a congregation of Black Baptists – many of whom were former enslaved people – eventually purchased the building. Since then, the church has maintained its original appearance, both inside and out. Today, it still serves its congregation, primarily African American, with roots back to its original members.

The late Dr. Blaine Hudson, a University of Louisville professor and author, called the crossing point between Portland and the church in New Albany “the most important crossing point in the greater Louisville area.”

The Renovation Process: 10 Years Later

When CFSI first partnered with the Town Clock Church in 2013, the historic building had not undergone a major exterior restoration since the early 1980s. But with New Albany celebrating its Bicentennial, all of that was about to change.

To support the church’s restoration efforts, a local community-wide project was put into motion. Improvements included refurbishing the clock faces and ornamental pieces, updating the tower, and putting the spire back on the tower as it originally stood. (According to the church’s website, the original steeple was struck by lightning several times, but a bolt in 1915 split the steeple in two. It was removed two weeks later and the clock tower, which was unaffected, was capped.)

Steeple Restoration

Three years after making its initial gift of $5,000, the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana contributed a follow-up Catalyst Grant of $10,000 to continue supporting the restoration of the historic landmark.

While the previous grant contributed to updating the church’s exterior, this funding went directly toward rehabilitating the inside to mirror its look of 1852. With the support of other local companies and organizations, interior updates included removing the wood paneling and fixtures that were installed over the years, restoring brass gasoliers to the entry way and gathering area, and painting walls and trims that match the sanctuary’s original stained-glass windows.

The Community Foundation of Southern Indiana has also played a role in helping the Town Clock Church to modernize, awarding $2,500 in 2020 to purchase surveillance cameras around the grounds. This allows the church to monitor its building, reducing the potential for criminal activity.

The most recent award was made in July 2020 for all of the church’s illustrious history to be put together into an Underground Railroad Documentary. The documentary dives into the historical significance of the church’s Gateway to Freedom nickname, as well as offering a glimpse into the basement that saved so many fleeing families and individuals. Much of that documentary can be found on the Town Clock Church’s website.

This powerful and historic structure still stands today as a testament to the courage of community members acting against a wrong that they felt needed to be righted. In addition to being included on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure of the Downtown Historic District, the Town Clock Church has become a place for visitors of all faiths to learn how ordinary people risked their lives for the good of those escaping the chains of slavery.

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