As a youngster growing up in North Carolina in the early 1800s, a child came face-to-face with the institution of slavery. One day while he was out with his father chopping wood by the side of a road, a group of slaves, handcuffed and chained together, passed by on their way to be sold in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. Questioned by the young boy=s father about why they were chained, one of the men sadly replied: AThey have taken us away from our wives and children, and they chain us lest we should make our escape and go back to them.@ After the dejected company had left the scene, the youth wondered to himself how he would feel if his father were taken away from him.
The incident by the side of the road marked the first awakening of Levi Coffin=s sympathy with the oppressed, which, he observed in his memoirs, together with a strong hatred of oppression and injustice in any form, Awere the motives that influenced my whole after-life.@ Coffin, who moved to the Indiana town of Newport (Fountain City today) in 1826 and became an important merchant there, acted on his beliefs. From his simple eight-room house in Wayne County, and with the help of his devoted wife, Catharine, he managed over the next twenty years to offer a safe haven to thousands of African Americans fleeing slavery=s evils on the AUnderground Railroad@ along major escape routes leading from Madison, and Jeffersonville.
ASeldom a week passed,@ said Coffin, Awithout our receiving passengers by this mysterious road. We found it necessary to be always prepared to receive such company and properly care for them.@ Coffin=s efforts won for him the designation
APresident of the Underground Railroad@ and for the Coffins= home the title AGrand Central Station@ on the path for slaves eventual freedom in the north and Canada. One of the refugees who found shelter in the Coffins= home was later immortalized as the character Eliza, the heroine of Harriet Beecher Stowes classic novel, Uncle Tom=s Cabin. Levi and Catharine Coffin are supposedly depicted in the book as Simeon and Rachel Halliday.
Levi Coffin was born on 28 October 1798 on a farm in New Garden, North Carolina, the only son of seven children born to Levi and Prudence (Williams) Coffin. Because his father could not spare him from work on the farm, the young Levi received the bulk of his education at home, under instruction from his father and sisters. His home schooling proved to be good enough for Coffin to find work as a teacher for several years. He shared with his relatives an abhorrence for slavery. ABoth my parents and grandparents were opposed to slavery,@ Coffin noted in his reminiscences, published in 1876, Aand none of either of the families ever owned slaves; and all were friends of the oppressed, so I claim that I inherited my anti-slavery principles.@
In 1821, with his cousin Vestal Coffin, Levi Coffin ran a Sunday school for blacks at New Garden where the slaves where taught to read using the Bible.
Alarmed slave owners, however, soon forced the school to close. Coffin, who married Catharine White, a woman he had known since childhood, on 28 October 1824, decided two years later to join his other family members who had moved to the young state of Indiana. Establishing a store in Newport, Coffin prospered, expanding his operations to include cutting pork and manufacturing linseed oil. His business success led to him being elected director of the State Bank=s Richmond branch.
Even with his busy life as a merchant, Coffin was Anever too busy to engage in Underground Railroad affairs.@ In fact, his business success aided him immeasurably in helping slaves to freedom. AThe Underground Railroad business increased as time advanced,@ he said, Aand it was attended with heavy expenses, which I could not have borne had not my affairs been prosperous.@
Also, his thriving business and importance in the community helped deflect opposition to his Underground Railroad activities from pro-slavery supporters and slave hunters in the area. Questioned by others in the community about why he aided slaves when he knew he could be arrested for his activities, Coffin told them that he Aread in the Bible when I was a boy that it was right to take in the stranger and administer to those in distress, and that I thought it was always safe to do right. 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.@
The fearlessness the Coffins displayed in offering assistance to the fleeing slaves had an effect on their neighbors. Levi Coffin noted that those who had once Astood aloof from the work@ eventually contributed clothing for the fugitives and aided the Coffins in forwarding the slaves on their way to freedom, but were Atimid about sheltering them under their roof; so that part of the work devolved on us.@ Fugitives came to the Coffins= home at all hours of the night and announced their presence by a gentle rap at the door. AI would invite them, in a low tone,@ said Coffin, Ato come in, and they would follow me into the darkened house without a word, for we knew not who might be watching and listening.@ Once safely inside, the slaves would be fed and made comfortable for the evening. The number of fugitives varied considerably through the years, Coffin noted, but annually averaged more than one hundred.