A leading American antislavery reformer and a conductor of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin (1789-1877) contributed to the good repute in the North of illegal and contested fugitive slave activities.
Levi Coffin came of an old Nantucket, Mass., family, part of which had settled with a Quaker community in New Garden, N.C. There he was born of farmer parents on Oct. 28, 1789, and raised with little schooling. What he learned came by his own efforts. Coffin aspired at the time to be a teacher and taught a number of seasons in the area. North Carolina still permitted moderate antislavery measures. Coffin, already a friend of runaway slaves, sought means for helping them. In 1821 he opened a Sunday school for slaves. It was successful but stirred the antagonism of white neighbors, who discouraged friendly slave-holders from permitting their slaves to attend its sessions.
Increasing repression in the state dissatisfied many of Coffin's Quaker associates, and in 1826 they moved to Newport (later Fountain City), Ind., where African Americans resided freely. There Coffin opened a country store, which became a successful enterprise, soon including pork curing and the manufacture of linseed oil. By this time Coffin was wholly dedicated to peaceful measures for opposing the institution of slavery. His home became a center of secret activity for conducting runaways north to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and he gained fame as informal "president" of what was largely a loose federation of people and routes for encouraging fugitive slave enterprises. He also continued his educational efforts in behalf of African Americans.
Coffin was outstanding in his search for alternatives to slave labor and was a major advocate of "free produce," that is, goods produced by free labor. He hoped to persuade Southerners as well as Northerners of its virtues, and he visited the South in his efforts to win partisans for his program. While there he expressed himself freely in criticism of the morals and economics of slavery.
In 1847, with the cooperation of Quaker associates, Coffin moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to build a business dealing in free produce. Thanks to his commercial abilities, it operated at a profit, though its success did not advance the free-labor movement significantly. He also continued his Underground Railroad and educational work. During the Civil War he gave much thought to the future of slaves who were being freed by military actions or proclamations. He contributed to the work of the Freedmen's Aid Associations set up to ease their plight. In 1864 he visited England to appeal for funds from auxiliary associations there and received more than $100,000 to help feed, clothe, and educate freedmen. The adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1869, giving the vote to African American men, marked his retirement from active service. He died on Sept. 16, 1877.
Coffin's autobiography, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1876; 3d ed. 1898), is the major source. See also Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898), and Carter G. Woodson, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915). □