A few days ago, I walked in the long-forgotten footsteps of runaway slaves.
My feet touched the same smooth ash floorboards as theirs did over 170 years ago when they were rushed through a side door and silently led upstairs to a cramped hiding place.
My children sat in the same wagon that had smuggled these brave souls past slave hunters to a red brick house on the Underground Railroad.
|On one occasion 17 slaves hid in this small wagon.|
And I thanked God for freedom.
I wondered what would motivate men like Levi Coffin risk their lives for people they didn’t even know.
Was it love for their fellow man? The ability to look beyond color and see slaves as who they really were – people just like themselves? Conviction? Faith? Bravery? Maybe all of the above.
Whatever the reason, Coffin’s house still stands brave and strong in Fountain City, Indiana, a monument to the man who helped more than 2,000 escaped slaves taste freedom.
My children and I have been fascinated with the Underground Railroad ever since we read Freedom Train, a biography of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who led thousands of her people to freedom. Coffin and Tubman met somewhere on the Underground Railroad route, although the exact location is not known. I’m sure they hit it off instantly.
During the two-hour tour of this “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad, we marveled at the facts and stories told to us by two very knowledgeable guides.
Here is just a sampling of what we saw and heard:
· Levi and Catharine Coffin were Quakers who moved to Indiana from North Carolina in 1826 because they opposed slavery.
· In the 1840s, strong, healthy adult slaves were worth $1,000 each – that’s around $26,000 in today’s money. On one occasion, a wagon concealing 17 – yes, that’s right, SEVENTEEN – slaves arrived at Coffin’s side door.
· A rare indoor well helped conceal the fact that there were more people living in the house than usual. If the Coffin children would have been seen going to an outdoor well for water 10 or more times a day, people may have become suspicious.
· Once, Coffin helped rescue two little girls from slave hunters by smuggling them out of a nearby house dressed as boys and hiding them INSIDE beds in one of his upstairs bedrooms. The girls were talking and giggling so much he had to put them in two separate beds!
· The most well-used hiding spot in the house was in the garret/attic in the upstairs bedroom. This was a tiny space under the sloping roof of the house, with a three-foot tall door leading to it. The door could be concealed by moving the bed in front of it.
Can you imagine hiding in this cramped space on a 90 degree day for more than 12 hours? Slaves were not allowed to move around at all during the day, but they were able come out of the garret in the evening. As I peeked inside the tiny hiding spot during our tour, I could almost hear their whispered conversations about freedom and their shared hopes and dreams of life as free men and women.
If you live remotely close to east central Indiana, I highly recommend a trip to the Levi Coffin house. History will come alive for students and adults alike who have studied the Underground Railroad.
The house is located at 113 N. US Highway 27 in Fountain City, Indiana (close to Richmond). Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children (ages 6-18). For more information, call the museum’s information line at (765) 847-2432.