Knox County Public Library

Upstairs at the McGrady-Brockman House, the very shelves that hold the hundreds of boxes of historical documents are historic. They look like they were transported from the 1940s, and although they’re sort of neat and retro, if you don’t put the boxes back just right, all the boxes on the shelf will fall askew. One afternoon after I righted some the shelves and replaced all the boxes, I grabbed a box at random, opened it and pulled a file (also at random) and opened it. Just to see what was in all these boxes.

I had grabbed a relatively thin file, just three documents from 1822, but it’s how I met Judah. The top of the larger document read “The petition of Judah, A woman of colour,” and in the file was the paperwork for Judah’s petition for freedom from her bond of indentured servitude. It’s important to mention here that slavery and involuntary servitude were prohibited by the ordinance of 1787 as well as the Indiana constitution of 1816. This petition, like I said, was from 1822. Indentured servitude was an attempt to sidestep laws that made slavery illegal. After 1787, the choice for most freed blacks in the state was indentured servitude. With the hope of eventual freedom, blacks signed away a half century of more of their lives or more with an “X” at the bottom of a contract they couldn’t read. The other choice: to be sold back into slavery in Louisiana among other places.

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