East Washington Academy Visits the Levi & Catharine Coffin House

by Cindy Miller

Finding ways to bridge learning can sometimes be challenging for teachers, but for Cindy Miller and Shelly Bergren, first grade teachers at East Washington Academy, it was an easy decision to make.

I’ve always wanted to take students on a field experience to the Levi and Catharine Coffin House,” explained Ms. Miller.

Levi and Catharine Coffin were Quaker abolitionists who played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad, an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used to help enslaved African Americans escape to free states and Canada. Their home in Fountain City, Indiana, became known as the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad, underscoring its significance as a major hub for freedom-seeking slaves.

The Coffins, motivated by their strong religious convictions and commitment to human rights, turned their home into a sanctuary for those fleeing slavery. From 1826 to 1847, it is estimated that they assisted over 1,000 slaves in their escape, providing not just a safe haven but also food, medical care, and assistance in moving to safer territories. The design of their home, with hidden rooms and a secret door that led to a concealed space under the garret roof, exemplified their dedication and ingenuity in protecting the lives of many.

The actions of Levi and Catharine Coffin were both courageous and dangerous. At the time, aiding escaped slaves was illegal, and those caught doing so faced severe penalties. However, their unwavering commitment to justice and equality drove them to continue their clandestine activities, influencing many others to join the cause and support the network that formed the backbone of the Underground Railroad.

MCS Active Learning

On April 24, 28 first grade students and the two teachers representing East Washington Academy boarded a tour bus for the one-hour journey back in time to 1826. In preparation for their on-site experience, they studied slavery, how the Underground Railroad worked, and why people like the Coffin family felt compelled to help.

We learned that slaves were really poor and they couldn’t live the life they wanted,” shared Simeon Brown, a seven-year-old student. “They had to do chores day and night.”

Students toured the house and barn that are part of the Indiana State Museum sites. They also watched a short film that detailed the lives of the Coffins while they lived there. Students were able to sit beside the same closet that escaping slaves hid in, as well as see a similar wagon with the false bottom that they were whisked away under the dark curtain of night.

It would be so scary to be hidden in a wagon and driven to another hiding place in the middle of the night,” Brown said. “Slaves had to be really brave. And the people who helped them had to be brave too. They sacrificed their lives to help them.”

The tour also included a visit to the restored Friends Meeting House where the Coffin family attended church services.

We are so grateful for the generosity of Ball State and the CREATE program,” added Miller. “Their support made this a free experience for our students and hopefully this will encourage them to return to the site this summer with their families to learn more about the Underground Railroad and Levi and Catharine Coffin.”