February is Black History Month, and Wayne County honors its African-American heritage in meaningful ways.
Often referred to as the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad, the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site and Interpretive Center in Fountain City is a great starting point to learn more about the area's African-American history.
While the Coffins were living in Fountain City (then known as Newport) between 1826 and 1847, more than 2,000 fugitive slaves found safe refuge in their home along the journey to freedom. One of those freedom seekers was William Bush.
Rumor has it, Bush traveled inside a box to evade discovery, eventually arriving and deciding to stay in Fountain City. Bush is buried in the local cemetery, and visitors can view the wooden shoes he wore in the Levi Coffin interpretive center. His great-great granddaughter Eileen Baker-Wall now leads tours of the facility.
The site delivers a moving and unforgettable experience by offering guests an immersive look at the actual hiding places the Coffins used to safely shelter and sustain freedom seekers, including a dedicated kitchen and cistern.
Richmond is proud to be a richly diverse multicultural community. At the time it was founded in 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first independent black denomination in the country. William Paul Quinn, a traveling missionary born in India, settled in Richmond with his wife in the 1830s, where he founded the local Bethel A.M.E. Church (along with many other schools and churches throughout Ohio and Indiana prior to the Civil War).
In 1844, the General Conference elected Quinn to become the fourth AME Bishop, a high honor. After years of providing personal aid and assistance to the Underground Railroad effort, Quinn died in 1873 and is interred at Earlham Cemetery. A commemorative marker stands in his honor at the intersection of South B Street and South 6th Street in Richmond.
Richmond’s pioneering musical heritage is another testament to local black history. The “Cradle of Recorded Jazz” and an offshoot of the Starr Piano Company, Gennett Records was notable for supporting artists in mainly undiscovered genres, giving them exposure and independent control of their musical recordings.
In the company’s 1920s heyday, a legendary roster of African-American musicians that included the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Honore Dutrey and Earl Hines made its way through the doors of these hallowed studios. Gennett also broke new ground when it featured pianist Jelly Roll Morton as the first black artist to record with a white jazz band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
New for 2021 sits a site marker at Glen Miller Park located directly across the street from the former Exhibition Park. Exhibition Park was home to a baseball stadium where the Richmond Giants played. This independent Negro League Baseball Team was based right here in Richmond, Indiana and included some well known African American players including: Oscar Charleston, Bill Holland, Connie Day, and Will McMurray. Between 1907 and 1960, over 125 games featuring all-Black teams were played here.
To learn more about these sites and exploring Black History in Wayne County, click on the hyperlinks mentioned above.