Friday, February 5, 2016

Black History Month: Levi Coffin

"Grand Central Station" is not only the name of a famous railroad station in New York City.  It's also the nickname given to the Indiana house where Levi Coffin and his wife Catharine lived.

Levi Coffin was born on October 28, 1798, in North Carolina.  He was a Quaker, a religious group that did not believe in slavery.  As a child, he and his father saw a group of slaves, and Coffin wondered how he would feel if his father were taken away from him, just like the slaves were taken away from their wives and children.

In 1826, he moved to Indiana with his wife Catharine.  When they learned that they were living on a route that escaped slaves used to flee their masters, they started helping shelter them and arranging transportation to Canada and elsewhere.  Because of his work, Coffin gained the nickname of "President of the Underground Railroad," and their home, the nickname of "Grand Central Station".

When asked why he helped slaves when he knew he could be arrested, Coffin explained that he "read in the Bible . . . that it was right to take in the stranger and adminster to those in distress, and that I thought it was always safe to do right.  The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book."

He moved to Cincinnati in 1847.  There, he opened a business that sold goods produced by free laborers.  He continued his participation in the Underground Railroad.  By 1850, safe houses were needed in free states as well as in slave states, because the Fugitive Slave Law allowed Southern slave owners to go to free states and reclaim their slaves.  In order to gain their freedom, escaped slaves had to go all the way to Canada.

In 1876, he published his autobiography, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, which told of his life and his activities in helping slaves.  He died on September 16, 1877, in Cincinnati.  Several years later, a group of African-Americans in Cincinnati, to show their appreciation for Coffin's work, erected a monument over his grave.  It stands today, paying tribute to the man that ran the original "Grand Central Station".

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