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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Smith: Don’t bury the Coffins

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History is as important to me as the sun is to flowers. Thus, I jumped at the recent invitation of Marc Allan, director of communication at the Indiana State Museum, to visit the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site. (Marc is also a recovering newspaperman.) Nestled in the rustically beautiful, cell phone-challenged hamlet of Fountain City, the Coffin site is a living testament to the Underground Railroad in Indiana.

Most people — including Hoosiers — are unaware of the fact that Indiana was crucial in the antislavery movement during the antebellum period. It was also a Union stalwart during the Civil War. Boasting several “stops” on the Underground Railroad, scores of Indiana residents offered safety and sustenance to Blacks who were seeking freedom up North. Once war broke out, our physical railroads were packed with trains that carried supplies and munitions to the Union Army. In short, our small state played a big role in fighting slavery.

Among the conductors on the Underground Railroad were the Coffins, a husband and wife who were Quakers. They helped an estimated 1,000 Blacks gain their freedom. So complete was the Coffins’ dedication that their home became known as the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad. (Incidentally, the Coffins left their native North Carolina because it was a slave state.)

Guided by their deep religious faith, Quakers heroically practiced what the Declaration of Independence hypocritically preached — that all people are created equal. Quakers called for the abolition of slavery as early as the 1600s. After the Civil War ended, a famous Quaker named Lucretia Mott advocated for African Americans to have voting rights. Quakers also lobbied for women’s rights beginning in the 1800s.

I was aware that Quakers (who are formally known as the Society of Friends) were among the nation’s staunchest anti-slavery groups. However, it wasn’t until I visited the Coffin site that I learned about a major split within their ranks. The rift was based upon the fact that some members of the faith believed that their opposition to slavery should be limited merely to speaking out against it; they refused to break the law by helping the enslaved to escape.

Slavery was, of course, the law of the land. So was the Fugitive Slave Act, which required people in Northern states to cooperate with human traffickers whose job was to return escaped Blacks to bondage. Yet, some Quakers, including the Coffins, felt so strongly about the moral depravity of slavery that they formed a separate sect to actively combat it. (In a move that 21st century activists would envy, they even refused to buy cotton products that had been produced by slave labor.) These Quakers answered to a higher law than the ones enacted by men.

Roughly 100 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. would write the following in his unanswerable “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” (King’s view was influenced by 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who was a staunch abolitionist.)

Extraordinary efforts by people like the Coffins ultimately led to the suffocating death of slavery in the United States. In 1876, Mr. Coffin wrote a memoir titled “Reminiscences.” In it, he discusses the mode and motivation for his and his wife’s activism. Not surprisingly, he leaves out many details so as to not put at risk the lives of many of the people they helped and/or worked with. As we know, the formal abolition of slavery fell well short of ushering in an era of racial equality.

Many racial stains blot Indiana’s historical fabric. This includes the fact that, in 1851, the legislature outlawed Blacks — enslaved or free — from entering the state. However, the Coffins remind us that “Hoosier hospitality” has the potential to be much more than a bland (and often inaccurate) platitude. So, go ahead and take the drive to Fountain City. You’ll be glad that you did.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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