Sean O'Brien | August 26, 2017
I didn’t set out to learn about Thomas P. Bulla. Rather, my search was inspired by The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which tells the story of teenage Cora and her bold escape from slavery. Detailed and brutal in its depiction of plantation life, Whitehead’s novel turns to fancy as it forges a literal subterranean locomotive connecting stops along Cora’s route north from Georgia. A gruesome Gulliver’s Travels, the foreboding narrative offers different possibilities for the future of black-white relationships in America at each stop of her journey, slave-catchers in vicious pursuit. Near the book’s ambiguous conclusion, the reader comes up for air as Cora spends time in a black utopian farming community in Indiana.
In the following days, when I was still living with the characters and imagining their lives continuing beyond the edges of the novel’s final pages, I began researching the history of the Underground Railroad. Historian Eric Foner estimates that the loosely woven network of blacks, whites and Native Americans, from all levels of society, aided more than 1,000 freedom-seeking slaves per year between 1830 and 1860. It was focusing on Indiana, then South Bend and, finally, Notre Dame that I came upon Bulla, whose obituary in the December 1, 1886, South Bend Tribune lauded him as one who “did, perhaps, more than any other one man in the earlier history of the county to advance its interests and prosperity.” Bulla, a friendly neighbor to Father Edward Sorin and the priest’s frontier school, was a pioneer, farmer, schoolteacher, surveyor and “earnest abolitionist.” And he may well have been an Underground Railroad stationmaster.
My own journey began — as it often does these days — with a Google search. To my surprise, “Notre Dame AND Underground Railroad” returned a series of websites — including one that offered photographs of a campus building referred to as the “Bulla Farmhouse” and described as an “Underground Railroad station.”