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This docent at the 'Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad' is also a descendant of one of its beneficiaries

Woman holds wooden shoes
Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites
Eileen Baker-Wall holds shoes that belonged to her great, great grandfather. Family stories tell of how he escaped enslavement in North Carolina sometime in the 1840s.

A little over a decade ago, retired social studies teacher Eileen Baker-Wall was ready for a new challenge. As the great, great granddaughter of a former enslaved person, she knew just how to make her mark in the community where they both lived.

She became a docent, and later a board member, of the Levi & Catherine Coffin Museum, better known as "The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad," in Fountain City, Ind., just north of Richmond. She felt called to share her family's story alongside the Coffins'.

"I need to be one that helps. I'm one that has a legacy," Baker-Wall explains. "That was my great, great grandfather that came through this town, that came to this town and decided to stay here, because he felt comfortable coming out of slavery."

The Coffin's eight-room home provided safe haven for more than 2,000 freedom seekers — many who passed through Cincinnati — making their way north to new lives in Canada. Levi Coffin became known as the "President of the Underground Railroad," and every freedom seeker who passed through the home eventually made it to freedom, according to the Indiana State Museum.

'We don't know the whole story'

Stories of Baker-Wall's great, great grandfather, William Bush, have been quietly passed down through the family for years. A Black man, Bush arrived in Indiana — possibly hiding inside a wooden crate that was supposedly shipped to Levi Coffin — sometime between 1840 and 1850, based on census information. Her family's history wasn't something that was talked about. She describes having to pry the information out of her parents during the Civil Rights movement. She went on to research her family's legacy.

"We don't really know the whole story about how he got here because he never really wanted to tell exactly where he came from, and how he got here," she says. "There are stories that he had money to buy his way here, and that he had $75. There were stories that he was a runaway; there are stories that he might have been freed by his master. We don't know exactly how he got to come to this area, we're still researching that and trying to find out."

Bush became a man of prominence in the Fountain City — it was called Newport at the time — community. He had 11 children. Baker-Wall recently discovered he even owned land right on Main Street.

"And then there were generation after generation who lived in this town because it was a safe place to live. Now, even after the Civil War there was still evidence of Black people, or colored people as they were called, not being well treated. But this was a safe place. This was a place where you could come and raise your family. You could have your land. You could have your farm."

'We need to tell the truth'

As Baker-Wall gives tours of the Levi & Catherine Coffin house, she weaves these stories into the narrative. She wants visitors to understand the horrors of slavery, the despicable way people were treated that some would prefer to sweep under a rug and forget.

"They were human beings. They were people of value. They were people to be respected. ... They were people who should have always been free. The fact that they were held in bondage was a sad, sad story. In spite of the fact that it happened in this country — and I love my country, I love the United States — we need to tell the truth. That's what I do today," says Baker-Wall.

She points to romanticized notions of "the happy slave," or movies depicting enslaved people as satisfied with their lot in life. She wants nothing to do with those false notions, and she wants to educate people on the injustices that still exist.

"That is not the truth. I don't know any of my forebears that were happy in the condition that they were in," she says firmly. "It's led on, in my life, to be a condition of second class citizenship. I grew up in that. I grew up being told places that I couldn't go. It was even worse for my father and the places he couldn't go."

You can feel the pain as she describes trying to buy her first home with her husband in the late 1960s. They had plenty of money to afford the house they wanted, yet were denied because they weren't welcome in that part of town because of the color of their skin.

"They're still vestiges of it today. Slavery has caused Black people in this country to always be considered inferior in some way. It's caused us to have to prove ourselves over and over and over. I want to tell the story, and I want people to hear the true story."

She continues, "Don't try to give me reparations because nobody can give me enough. There is not enough money in this world to console me or to make me forget what happened. So, I don't want a reparation. I want equality, justice, freedom for everybody. I don't ever want to see this happen to any race, or any person. I want us to tell the truth."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.