A city in the east-central part of Indiana might not be the first place you'd think to look for Black history. "What about Atlanta? Or Little Rock? Or Selma?" you might ask. But take a moment to look at a map of the state, and it's easy to see why this place is as important to African American history as all of those others.
The Ohio River creates the ruffly southern border that separates Indiana from Kentucky, and freedom-seeking slaves had to cross it in order to get to Michigan and Canada, where they could find work and be safe. Often they did this when the water was frozen in the winter to avoid drowning. Once they had arrived at such cities as Madison and Jeffersonville, the trip north took them straight through Richmond.
Another reason for its importance is that in the first settlers to arrive here in the 1800s were abolitionist Quakers from the South. Among them were Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, whose home in Fountain City, just sixmiles north, came to be known as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad."
Over a period of 20 years the Coffins helped some 2,000 runaway slaves on their way to freedom in myriad clever ways that escaped detection by the slavecatchers who pursued them. They built their home over a well so that no one could detect how much water they were using, for example, and Catharine cooked for everyone in a basement kitchen that was below ground level. An attic space could hold up to 14 people if they were crammed together. When the small access door was closed and a bed was pushed into position to cover it, no one could tell they were there.
And who would have guessed that as the Coffins' four children slept in their beds runaway slaves slept under the mattresses beneath them? Levi transported the freedom seekers in a horse-drawn wagon with a false bottom. The person lay beneath the wagon's floor, which was then covered with straw and bags of grain.
Today the original house and the adjacent Interpretive Center are at the heart of Richmond's Black History Trail, which visitors can drive and walk at their own speed. This is the best place to start because the tour begins with a short film that puts what happened here into context. Interactive displays further explain all that you are seeing.
Other highlights of the trail are the remains of the Starr Piano factory, where Gennett Records had its studios. At one time they were the only recording company that would record Black musicians, and this is where the likes of Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Duke Ellington got their starts. Now the Gennett Walk of Fame features a series of 29 large bronze medallions made to resemble 78-rpm records with ceramic images of the entertainers at their centers.
Richmond is also well-known for its murals, and several commemorate African American people and events. Some throughout the city honor Gennett Records; Charley Patton, known as the founder of the Delta Blues; and escaped slaves running toward freedom.
Another location not to be missed is Longtown, the earliest settlement of free Blacks in Indiana. It was established along the Indiana and Ohio line in nearby Randolph County, and historians believe its location was decided upon so that if laws in one state became too restrictive for people of color, they could move across the road to the other.
Not much remains of the homes, sawmill, schools, Masonic hall, churches and blacksmith shop that were once here, but standing where it all happened and looking across the road to another state is an emotional and not-to-be-missed experience. Just down the road is the Union Literary Institute, a school founded by the town's settlers and their abolitionist Quaker neighbors because children of color were excluded from early public schools.
Back in town are more locations important to learning about Black history here. The Charles House in Glen Miller Park, home of another Quaker abolitionist, Samuel Charles, was in the process of being town down when a man walked by and asked the demolition crew if they had found the secret cellar. When they didn't know what he was talking about, he directed them to the place where Charles had hidden slaves before sending them on north. The demolition ended, and the house—one of the oldest in Richmond—remains today.
Also in this park is an interpretive sign that memorializes the all-Black Richmond Giants, who hosted Negro League baseball teams who traveled from town to town playing other teams of color at a time when the major leagues barred them from playing. Another marker honors Bishop William Paul Quinn, an African Methodist Episcopal missionary who was sent to organize churches between Ohio and Missouri and made Richmond his base of operations. At that time the city had the name "Little Africa" because so many Black people were moving in, and their community centered around the Bethel AME Church. His gravesite can be visited at the Earlham Cemetery.