Obediah Buckner

Early Jeffersonville Civil Rights Case

The Jeffersonville Township Public Library occupies the space that was once Jeffersonville’s train railroad switch yard. In 1854, Obediah Buckner visited the ticket office of the Jeffersonville Railroad, once located near here, expecting to purchase a ticket and ride the trains from Jeffersonville to Henryville, Indiana. At the time, railroads were the most swift and practical way to travel any place not accessible by a navigable river.

Illiterate according to the 1860 U.S. Census, Buckner couldn’t have known that he was among the earliest Black Americans to protest transportation discrimination. In theory, Blacks in Indiana lived in freedom by the time Buckner settled in Clark County. From territorials days on, Indiana banned slavery but discrimination thrived. With Jeffersonville’s proximity to Louisville’s slave markets, freedom was tenuous at best.

Born in Kentucky around 1808, based on the 1860 U.S. Census, Buckner farmed in Henryville with his wife Rebecca, who was born in Virginia. They were modestly successful and had at least four children, but indicated that they could not read or write. Three sons lived at home with them in that census year. They would have been small children at the time of Buckner’s 1854 conflict. The Buckners appear in Kentucky in the 1840 U.S. Census, living as a free Black couple with one child. They may have returned to Kentucky after the Civil War. Little else is known of the Buckners.

On that fateful morning, agents of the Jeffersonville Railroad informed Buckner that since they didn’t know him, they wouldn’t sell him a railway ticket unless he could prove that he wasn’t an escaped slave. Unprepared to do so, Buckner missed the morning train. We don’t know why he was returning to Henryville that morning, but he calculated the expenses he incurred from his delayed journey at $20. He filed a complaint against the Jeffersonville Railroad, requesting reimbursement.

While Jeffersonville Railroad admitted to the facts in the case, and even admitted that they had never published a rule requiring freedom papers from black passengers, Clark Circuit Court found for the railroad. This left Buckner and other free people of color to contend with inconsistent, discriminatory rules regarding rail transportation at a time when most relied on trains for travel.