An unassuming hero

So many people think heroes are larger than life. Superman, Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, Odysseus, Lance Armstrong, Eleanor Roosevelt, Todd Beamer, Rosa Parks … the list is endless. And maybe they are larger than life, but most of them don’t start out that way — except for maybe the fictional ones.

The back of the Levi Coffin house.

Along U.S. 27 in Fountain City, just north of Richmond, is a red brick house that was once the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin. The Coffins were Quakers who had moved to Fountain City (it was Newport at the time) in 1826 from North Carolina in part because they were staunch abolitionists. This house and its property is now the Levi Coffin State Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark.

Why? Well, Levi and his wife were heroes to more than 2,000 slaves who were risking their lives for the sake of their freedom. They were unassuming heroes as, by day, Levi was the owner of a mercantile in Newport while Catharine kept house — sewing, cooking, cleaning — for their six children. By night, their home often became a refuge for escaped slaves seeking their freedom in Canada. The Coffins sometimes housed as many as 17 slaves at one time — feeding, clothing and caring for them until their journey resumed. And they did this at great risk to themselves.

The second floor crawlspace is on the left (the inset shows the inside). The false-bottom wagon is on the right.

My recent visit to the Levi Coffin State Historic Site gave me a glimpse into life on the run for escaped slaves. Though the Coffin house had many amenities for hiding slaves — from a hidden crawl space on the second floor and an indoor well in the basement to a false-bottom wagon in the barn — it must have been a terrifying experience. Not to mention unbearably hot in the summer and brutally cold in the winter. But for 20 years, the Coffin family generously provided food, clothes, shelter and moral support for those who needed it most.

Volunteer Janice McGuire explains some of the kitchen tools to a group of visitors.

Speaking of unassuming heroes … the Levi Coffin site is run completely by volunteers who care for the property, the artifacts and provide educational experiences for school groups and other visitors — including me! They tell a great story and work hard to make sure visitors come away with a sense of life in the mid-19th century. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)  just awarded them the Albert B. Corey Leadership in History Award for their “vigor, scholarship, and imagination.” Congratulations to Saundra, Janice and the rest of the crew! Keep up the good work!

For more information about the Levi Coffin State Historic Site, visit indianamuseum.org/levi_coffin.

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