Levi Coffin (1798-1877) was an American abolitionist, writer, farmer and businessman. He was one of the foremost abolitionists of his day. Known as the “President of the Underground Railroad”, he helped slaves escape to Canada. He also worked in the free produce movement; lobbied for the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau; assisted communities of escaped slaves in Canada; and co-founded an orphanage for black children. After the Civil War, through the Western Freedman’s Aid Society, he continued to help African-Americans. He collaborated closely with free blacks and other white abolitionists in all his efforts.
Coffin spent most of his life working in the Underground Railroad. In 1813, in North Carolina, as a teenager, he began helping escaped slaves. In 1825, refusing to live any longer in a slave state, he and his family moved to Newport, Indiana. (Catherine, his wife, was also very involved in aiding escapees). He used the considerable wealth from his success as a businessman in Indiana to assist escaped slaves. His home, for example, was built with secret rooms and a secret well. (It was known as the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad). In 1847 Coffin and his family moved to Cincinnati. He purchased a home that also functioned as a boarding house, giving cover to escaped slaves who appeared to be servants or, for the more light-skinned, guests. Sometimes he also disguised escapees as Quaker women, their gowns and bonnets hiding them. Harriet Beecher Stowe was acquainted with the Coffins in Cincinnati and used them as models for the characters Simeon and Rachael Halliday in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is estimated that he helped around 3000 slaves to escape.
Coffin was raised a Quaker at New Garden Meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. As a Friend, he was part of a community that completely opposed slavery. Quakers had forbidden their members to own slaves since the 1770’s. His parents had probably heard John Woolman speak, and his cousin Vestal was one of the first Friends to help escaped slaves. Slavecatchers threatened to kill Coffin or ruin him financially numerous times. He never wavered, though, stating that “my life was in the hands of the Divine Master”. Some Quakers also opposed his efforts. While those Friends were anti-slavery, they felt only legal emancipation was acceptable. This led to a split among Friends, with Coffin and other like-minded Quakers forming the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-slavery Friends. Because of the Peace Testimony, Coffin refused to fight in the Civil War but he nursed wounded soldiers at a military hospital and took many of them into his home. When he died, the memorial service at the Cincinnati Meetinghouse was attended by so many people that hundreds had to stay outside. Four freed slaves were among his pallbearers. He was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in an unmarked grave, as was the Quaker custom.
In 1876 Coffin published The Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, an account of his work in the Underground Railroad. Though he stated that he had “no literary merit”, the book is, in fact, a riveting and moving story. Highly recommended.
A story from The Reminiscences:
British Friends from London Yearly Meeting visited Indiana in 1847 to encourage the Anti-slavery Friends to give up their involvement in the Underground Railroad.
“William Forster said: “We will go home with thee now,” as it was on their way to their stopping place. He took me by one arm, George Stacy by the other, and the other two Friends followed us. When we arrived at our house, I seated them in the parlor, excused myself for a moment, and went into a back room where there were fourteen fugitive slaves, who had arrived the night before. An old white-haired grandmother was there, with several of her children and grandchildren; one of her daughters had a child three months old. I invited them all to follow me into the parlor to see the four English Friends, telling them the gentlemen lived on the other side of the ocean where there was no slavery, and were true friends to the slave. This seemed to remove all fear from them, and they followed me into the parlor. I had them to stand in a semicircle and introduced them to the English Friends as fugitive slaves fleeing from the land of whips and chains and seeking safety in the Queen’s dominions. The Friends all rose and shook hands with them. Taking the child in my arms, I said: “See this innocent babe, which was born a slave,” and handed it to George Stacy, who stood near me. He took it in his arms and fondled it, for it was a pleasant looking child. All the Friends seemed deeply interested and asked the fugitives many questions.
Finally Coffin said:
“For pleading the cause of innocent babes like the one thou held in thy arms, and sheltering the fugitives, such as you have seen, we have been proscribed. Now, my dear friends, if you fully understood the difference of sentiment that exists…. you could not advise the discontinuance of our organization….”
The British Friends were deeply moved. After further talks with Coffin, they returned to England. There were no further calls from London Yearly Meeting to cease Quaker work in the Underground Railroad.
A link to The Reminiscences: https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html