north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     Levi Coffin first saw shackled slaves when he was seven years old, working in the field with his father. While he may not have realized it at that moment, he would spend the rest of his life working to free individuals from the shackles of slavery and one day would be a prominent player in the Underground Railroad, indeed becoming known as its “conductor.”

      Levi Coffin was born in the Guilford County Quaker community of New Garden on October 28, 1798. The only son of Levi and Prudence Williams Coffin, he was taught by his father and engaged in work on the farm. He joined the Quakers of New Garden in 1818 and soon after began a Sunday school in the schoolhouse adjoining the meeting house. As an opponent to slavery, he joined Guilford County’s first manumission society. Together with his cousin Vestal Coffin, he began a school for slaves, teaching them about Christianity and Bible reading on Sunday afternoons. Slave masters soon came to oppose this and forbade their slaves to attend. Coffin married Catherine White on October 28, 1824. Two years later, they moved to Newport in Wayne County, Indiana.

     Not long after they arrived in Newport, now known as Fountain City, the couple realized that they were on a route of the Underground Railroad, through which slaves escaping to freedom passed. Coffin and his wife joined the movement and made their house a “station” to shelter runaways and provide safe passage into Canada. During the twenty years they lived in Newport, the Coffins helped 2,000 slaves escape to safety. One of those was the slave “Eliza,” depicted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not one of the slaves who passed through the Coffin house failed to reach freedom.

     In 1847, Coffin moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he opened a wholesale store to sell goods manufactured by free labor. In addition to being a member of the Underground Railroad movement, Coffin was a member of the temperance movement. He also sat on the Committee on Concerns of People of Color, which sought to improve the education of black people. In May of 1864, he traveled to England where he helped form the English Freemen’s Aid Society, which in one year sent over $100,000 in money, clothing, and other necessities to aid the cause of freedom in America. In 1867, he was a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris. Levi Coffin died in Cincinnati on September 16, 1878, and is buried in the city's Spring Grove Cemetery.


References:
Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, Reputed President of the Underground Railroad (1879)
Allen Johnson, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (1946)
Levi Coffin House Website: http://www.waynet.org/nonprofit/coffin.htm
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 394—sketch by Mary Katherine Hoskins
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Levi Coffin

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