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 Levi Coffin

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Levi Coffin

Businessman and Abolitionist. He is remembered as the "President of the Underground Railroad" because of the thousands of African-American slaves that are reported to have passed through his care while escaping their Southern masters in the years prior to the American Civil War. Born into a Quaker family in North Carolina, the only son of seven children, he grew up working on his father's farm and received little, if any, formal education. He was frequently exposed to slaves throughout his childhood and sympathized with their condition. By age fifteen he was helping his family assist escaping slaves by taking food to those hiding on his farm. As the repressive Fugitive Slave Act became more rigorously enforced, the family began conducting their assistance to slaves with greater secrecy and doing most of their illegal activities at night. In 1822 he accompanied his brother-in-law, Benjamin White on his move to Indiana and returned to North Carolina the following year. After marrying Benjamin White's sister Catherine in October 1824, he moved his family to Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana in 1826, began farming, and opened a general store the following year. He first took fugitive slaves into his new home in the winter of 1826-1827 and word of his activity quickly spread throughout the community. Although many had previously been afraid to take part, upon seeing his success at avoiding problems they soon joined him. The group formed a more formal route whereby the fugitives could be moved from stop to stop until they reached Canada. He referred to the system as the "mysterious road" and as time progressed the number of escaping slaves increased. His home became the convergence point of three major escape routes from Madison and New Albany, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio. His home saw so many fugitives pass through, it became known as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad." His business initially suffered a period of poor performance and neighbors who were opposed to his activity boycotted his store. With the population of Indiana quickly growing, the majority of the new immigrants supported the anti-slavery movement and his business began to grow. His prosperity continued and he made a substantial investment in the Bank of Indiana when it was first established in 1833 and soon became the director of the Richmond branch of the bank. In 1836 he built a mill and began to produce linseed oil from flax he grew on his farm. In 1838 he built a new two-story brick home and had several modifications made to his house to create better hiding places for the slaves. A secret door was created in his maids' quarters where up to fourteen people could hide in a narrow crawlspace between the walls. The space was often used when slave hunters came to his home in search of runaways. In 1842, under increased pressure, the Religious Society of Friends advised all their members to cease membership in abolitionist societies and end activities assisting runaway slaves. The following year they disowned him and expelled him from their group because he continued to take an active role in assisting escaping slaves. He and other Quakers who supported his activities separated and formed the Antislavery Friends and the two groups remained separate until a reunification in 1851. Over the years he came to realize that many of the goods he sold in his business were the product of slave labor. Through traveling he learned of organizations in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania and New York City, New York that only sold goods produced by free labor. He began to purchase stock from the organizations and marketed them to his fellow abolitionists, though the products were sold for almost no profit. In 1847 he moved to the Cincinnati area where he took over the management of the venture, the Western Free Produce Association. He rented out his Newport business before leaving and made arrangements for his home to continue serving as an Underground Railroad stop, as he intended to return to Newport after fulfilling his five-year obligation in Cincinnati. He began to travel into the south to seek out plantations that did not use slave labor, but he met with only limited success. Despite his constant attention to the business, the poor supply of cheap and quality free labor products proved insurmountable, making it impossible for him to return to Indiana or locate a replacement to run the company. The company had stayed in business primarily through the financial support of wealthy benefactors. In 1857 he sold the business after deciding it would be impossible for the business to remain profitable. He purchased a new home in Cincinnati and continued to be active in the Underground Railroad, setting up a new safe house in the city and helping organize a larger network in the area. As the American Civil War approached, his role began to change. He made a trip to Canada to visit the community of escaped slaves that was living there and offer assistance and he helped found an orphanage in Cincinnati for black children. When the war broke out in April 1861, he and his group began to prepare to help the war's wounded. Although as a Quaker, he was opposed to war, he did support their cause. He and his wife spent almost every day at Cincinnati's war hospital helping to care for the wounded. They prepared large buckets of coffee and distributed it freely to the soldiers and took many into their home. In 1863 he helped form the Western Freedman's Aid Society to offer assistance to the slaves freed during the war. As Union soldiers moved into the South, some slaveholders abandoned their slaves, leaving them without food or shelter. His group began to collect food and goods to be distributed to the former slaves. He then petitioned the government to create the Freedmen's Bureau to offer assistance to freed slaves. In 1864 he traveled to England to seek aid and his advocacy there led to the formation of the Englishman's Freedmen's Aid Society. He was also involved in helping freed slaves after the war in establishing businesses and getting educations. In 1867 he attended the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris, France. He did not enjoy being in the public eye and considered his job as begging for money, which he thought to be demeaning. He was concerned about giving money freely to all blacks, some of whom he was believed would never be able to care for themselves unless adequate education and farms were provided to them. He believed the society should only be giving their limited resources to those who were best able to benefit from them. The society continued to operate until 1870, the same year blacks were guaranteed equality under the 15th Amendment. He then retired and spent his final year writing a book about the activities of the Underground Railroad and his life. The book, "Reminiscences of Levi Coffin" (1876) is considered by historians to be one of the best firsthand accounts of the activities of the Underground Railroad. Modern historians estimate that he helped more than 2,000 slaves escape, although he estimated the number to be around 3,000. Once questioned about why he aided slaves, he said, "The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book." Another time he simply said, "I thought it was always safe to do right." He died at the age of 78. In July 1902, African Americans in Cincinnati erected a 6 feet tall monument over his grave in his honor. His home in Fountain City, Indiana is now a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public.

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 1 Jan 2001
  • Find A Grave Memorial 212
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Levi Coffin (28 Oct 1798–16 Sep 1877), Find A Grave Memorial no. 212, citing Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .