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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,255

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This is the grave of Levi Coffin.

Born in 1798 in Guilford County, North Carolina, Coffin grew up on the farms of that area. His family was Quaker and that would define his life and his politics. North Carolina was a popular place for Quakers to move in these years and form their own communities. Major migration to the South would soon end because of slavery. The Quakers were not fully anti-slavery yet, but they were moving that way. Coffin’s family was definitely anti-slavery. So you had these anti-slavery communities developing just before slavery would rebound with the invention of the cotton gin and the genocide against the tribes opening up cheap new land. So yeah, these communities weren’t going to be real comfortable down there for too long into the nineteenth century.

Coffin’s family was part of an early version of the Underground Railroad, actively helping slaves escape their masters by hiding them in their home. Coffin himself was centrally involved in this at least by 1813, but really his whole life. By this time, the Quakers were seen as extremely suspect by North Carolina, which had passed new laws in 1804 to crack down on those helping slaves escape and to regulate slave movement. In 1821, Coffin and his cousin opened a school to teach slaves to read the Bible. This was verboten in the developing white supremacist state and North Carolina quickly forced the school to close. Soon after, the Quakers started leaving for the North. Coffin himself was one of them and ended up in Indiana.

In his new state, Coffin, joined by his new wife Catherine, continued both farming and helping escaping slaves. He also opened a successful dry goods store in the town of Newport. He used the profits from this for his abolitionist activities. Coffin made connections in the local Black community and told them that his home was available for slaves moving north. They soon took advantage of that. Southern Indiana wasn’t much more anti-slavery than North Carolina, so Coffin took big risks here, if not to his life at first, then to his reputation and property.

In this, Coffin was one of the founders of what became officially known as the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. He was really brave here. There were lots of other Quakers in the community in Indiana now, but most of them were afraid to get personally involved, the way most people are around any issue when they are asked to do anything about it themselves. They need leadership. Coffin was the leader. He showed his neighbors how to do this. He organized them to do so. They followed his leadership. Slave hunters found out soon enough and threatened to kill him, but he basically didn’t care. He was moving at least 100 people a year north, developing networks north that would move them along. He took his solace over the potential loss of his life through his religion, believing he was doing God’s work.

It didn’t hurt that Coffin was also a shrewd businessman who diversified his holdings and got involved in banking. So whites might boycott his dry goods store, but he had other ways of making money. He also became a big linseed oil developer. When the Quaker church began dissuading members from being active abolitionists because it feared repressive consequences for these actions, Coffin and his friends just broke away from the central church and started their own offshoot Quaker church.

Coffin also realized that a lot of the goods he sold in his store were made by slaves. So he started one of the first consumer/fair trade campaigns. He investigated where the goods he bought were supplied from and he started developing networks that produced goods only made by free labor. He sold those in his store instead. Might not be as cheap but they were not soiled by slavery. In 1847, he moved to Cincinnati to run a big warehouse that a bunch of abolitionists had founded as a trading center for free-labor made goods.

It was not easy to run such an outfit. Where was one going to find free labor made cotton goods in 1847? In fact, Coffin traveled to Mississippi, where he found a guy who had freed all his slaves and was doing so with the now freed slaves. But the guy had no money. So Coffin helped him buy a cotton gin to provide him the free labor based cotton. Still, this was a financially sketchy operation generally. There were so few free labor goods that the quality was often not very good with what there was. He finally sold the business in 1857, basically giving up on this because it just was a financial black hole. Interesting idea though.

Coffin stayed in Cincinnati after this. The Queen City was the front line between abolitionist and pro-slavery forces. Most of the border state regions were filled with pro-slavery northerners but nowhere else in the border area had more abolitionists than Cincinnati. These were pretty hard core people so it was tense, sometimes looking a little like Bleeding Kansas in the city. Of course he continued his Underground Railroad activities, often dressing up escaped slaves as his employees or passing the light-skinned ones as whites to get them North.

When the Civil War broke out, Coffin remained active. He founded an orphanage for Black children in Cincinnati and worked to nurse wounded Union soldiers. He was a pacifist of course, being a Quaker, and he was too old to fight anyway, but he was still an active player in helping the war effort. With the Emancipation Proclamation, he became an agent for the Western Freedman’s Aid Society, which sought to provide financial assistance to the newly freed slaves. He was a factor in the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and engaged in educational activities for the emancipated. His work pretty much ended with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.

By 1870, Coffin was in retirement. He did write an autobiography that was published in 1876. This detailed the Underground Railroad like never before and became an important early source on it. He estimated he helped about 3,300 people escape slavery the years. Just remarkable.

Coffin died in 1877. He was 78 years old.

Levi Coffin is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, his burial was long unmarked. In 1902, the city’s Black community raised funds for this grave marker to honor him.

If you would like this series to visit other abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gustav Koerner is in Belleville, Illinois and Theodore Weld is in Boston. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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