You’ve heard about the Underground Railroad in the southern coastal states, and Harriet Tubman’s and Frederick Douglass’s heroism in aiding slaves escape to the northeastern states and Canada. The Railroad actually had several distinct routes to freedom, as shown on this map from National Geographic.
The branch on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers was established by the Society of Friends. I’ve had a soft spot for the Friends (or Quakers) since I learned how much they helped the Irish people during the Great Potato Famine, so I wasn’t surprised to learn they were involved in the abolitionist movement. (Learn more about the Friends and the Famine here.)
One of the most notable Quakers involved was Levi Coffin (1798 – 1877) who was born in North Carolina and, from the age of about 15, helped area slaves escape to Maryland on that northeastern route. But by the 1820s, Quakers began to be persecuted in NC, and the suspicions of plantation owners forced them to shut down their operations.
In 1826, Coffin moved to Indiana and settled near the National Road, where he established a dry goods store. That winter, he again began harboring fugitives, aiding an estimated 100 persons per year to escape to Canada.
Levi Coffin House, Indiana
Coffin is often referred to as “President of the Underground Railroad”. In 1838, after accumulating some wealth through his store and investments, Levi built a house that became known as “Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad”. Per Wikipedia:
The Coffin house had several modifications made to create better hiding places for the runaway slaves. A secret door installed in the maids’ quarters on the second floor provided access for fourteen people to hide in a narrow crawlspace between the walls. The hiding space could be used when slave hunters came to the Coffin home in search of runaways. Because Coffin demanded to see search warrants and slave-ownership papers before allowing entry to his home, it was never searched and escaping slaves had been transported to other locations by the time the slave hunters returned with the documents.
Four years later, again facing persecution, the local Quaker church condemned such help to runaway slaves, and adopted the idea that legal emancipation was the only way to slaves’ freedom. But Levi wouldn’t stop his activities and was subsequently expelled from the Society of Friends. He, along with others who believed in the work they did, formed a new group, the “Antislavery Friends”.
Levi & Catherine Coffin
In 1847, Levi moved his family to Cincinnati to establish a new safe house and organize a larger network of support. He bought a boarding house and dressed escaped slaves as butlers, maids, and cooks in uniforms made by his wife Catherine, who was known to all as “Aunt Katie”. Again, he demanded search warrants & ownership papers—since the documents included only a physical description of the person wanted, and Levi and friends would give the escapees new names and tell the bounty hunters they’d been freely employed for years, there was very little chance of an escaped slave being returned to his owner. In fact, there isn’t a single documented case of it.
Historians estimate that Levi and Catherine Coffin helped 2,000 slaves escape in Indiana and an additional 1,300 persons in Ohio. After the Civil War, Levi raised over $100,000 for the Western Freedman’s Aid Society, that provided food, shelter and other aid to freed slaves. His home in Indiana is a registered National Historic Landmark, and the site of the boarding house in Cincinnati is now home to the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Note: In THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE, the character Eli Sykes tells the story of his escape from slavery in Mississippi and the help he received from Levi Coffin and the Quakers.
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