Home » Louisville, Kentucky: Grave & Monument of James and Catherine Smith

Louisville, Kentucky: Grave & Monument of James and Catherine Smith

About the Underground Railroad:

The Underground Railroad refers to the efforts of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom by escaping bondage. Wherever slavery existed, there were efforts to escape, and those who did so were labeled slaves as “fugitives,” “escapees,” or “runaways”.  At first, there was not a lot of support for them in their journey; however, as time went on, there was an increase in active efforts to assist escape.  Help came from diverse groups: enslaved and free blacks, American Indians, and people of different religious and ethnic groups.

The routes followed natural and man-made modes of transportation – rivers, canals, bays, the Atlantic Coast, ferries and river crossings, road and trails. Locations close to ports, free territories and international boundaries (primarily Canada or Mexico) prompted many escapes.

Using ingenuity, freedom seekers drew on courage and intelligence to concoct disguises, forgeries and other strategies. Slave catchers and enslavers watched for runaways on the expected routes of escape and used the stimulus of advertised rewards to encourage public complicity in apprehension.

The Ohio River…especially the town of Ripley, was considered one of the first stations on the route of the Underground Railroad. It was here that Harriet Beecher Stowe heard the escaping slave’s story which became the basis for part of her famous work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

About James Madison Smith and Catherine Smith:

James Madison Smith Sr. and Catherine “Kitty” Smith were freed slaves.  James Madison Smith had purchased his freedom and that of Catherine Smith and they were married in 1837 at St. Louis Church ( now the site of the Cathedral of the Assumption), a church that had a community of both free and enslaved Catholics.  During the 1850s, worsening conditions for black people in the South led the Smiths to move from Louisville to Jennings County, Indiana. Their farm, which was located about 29 miles from the Ohio River, became a shelter for enslaved people fleeing for freedom.

Historial records show them returning to the city to witness weddings and baptisms of friends. The Smiths’ 23-year-old son, James Madison Smith Jr., died in 1868. He was buried in St. Louis Cemetery in the same plot as his parents.

The couple also had a daughter, Mary Laurinda Smith, who became a well-known suffragist in Oregon.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service announced in September 2023 that the Smiths’ burial site would be included in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Its mission is to “honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight,” according to its website.


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