A business owner, Quaker, abolitionist, and an organizer of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin was born in New Garden, North Carolina. Out of seven children, he was an only son, and his labor was necessary for the family farm’s survival. Consequently, he was educated mainly at home by his father and older sisters.
In his autobiography, Reminiscence of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Under Ground Railroad, Coffin writes concerning his and his family’s hatred for slavery. His family never owned slaves, and they befriended the oppressed. Living in the South, the young Coffin saw slaves and witnessed their troubles. He questioned, in particular, the separation of slave families. As a result, the homeschooler adopted anti-slavery principles during childhood, and his childhood experiences influenced his abolitionist activities.
At fifteen years old, Coffin aided a slave. While attending a corn husking, Coffin observed slaves brought there by a slave dealer, Stephen Holland. After learning that one slave, named Stephen, was freeborn and had been a former indentured servant to Edward Lloyd, a Philadelphia Quaker, and had been kidnapped and placed in bondage, Coffin arranged for the slave to be taken to his father’s house. His father, also named Levi, wrote to Lloyd concerning his former servant’s plight. Soon, Stephen was liberated.
Coffin also supported education for blacks. In 1821, Coffin and his cousin, Vestal Coffin, ran a Sunday school for African Americans. There slaves learned how to read and write. Angry slave owners, however, forced the school to close down.
Afterward Coffin and his wife moved to Indiana and started businesses that allowed them to participate for approximately twenty years in the Underground Railroad. (He and his wife are depicted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) He opened a store in Newport and expanded his franchise to include cutting pork and manufacturing linseed oil. His entrepreneurial success created profits that allowed him to finance slave runaways and the network that assisted them. In 1847, Coffin moved to Cincinnati and opened a wholesale warehouse that handled cotton goods, sugar, and spices produced by free labor. According to Coffin, “The Underground Railroad business increased as time advanced, and it was attended with heavy expenses, which I could not have borne had not my affairs been prosperous.”
During and after the Civil War, Coffin worked feverishly to eliminate slavery at home and abroad. He was a notable in the Western Freedmen’s Aid Society, and in one year, he raised $100,000 for the Society. He later traveled in 1867 to Paris as a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Conference.
On September 16, 1877, he died in Cincinnati and was buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery.
Levi Coffin, Reminiscence of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Under Ground Railroad (Cincinnati, 1876); Martin A. Klein, Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition (Lanham, 2002); Levi Coffin. http://afgen.com/coffin1.html (accessed January 6, 2010).