There are some people in history who deserve to be remembered forever, but in the hustle and bustle of life unfortunately are forgotten. We remember the villains for their horrific deeds, but we forget the heroes who remained faithful in their good works for decades. Allow me to tell you about Levi and Catharine Coffin, an incredible couple who lived during the 1800’s who deserve to be remembered but are rarely even acknowledged:
A young Levi and his father chopped wood in a forest in North Carolina. A cool breeze whispered through the tops of the trees, the sun shone brightly through the leaves, and puffy clouds floated across the sky. Levi could not imagine a more perfect day. Suddenly, a soft rattling sound rang through the trees. Levi ducked behind his father and peered hesitantly around the bend. A row of slaves, all chained together, plodded along, a slave trader cracking his whip behind them. When the group was near the Coffins, the slave trader stopped for a rest. Mr. Coffin quietly asked one slave why they were all chained together. The man replied, “They have taken us away from our wives and children, and they chain us lest we should make our escape and go back to them.” (“Levi and Catharine Coffin” par. 1)
Building on early life experiences and a Biblical foundation, Levi and Catharine Coffin would assist approximately two thousand slaves on their escape to freedom. Their family members and early life experiences prepared them for the influential role they would hold as leaders in the Underground Railroad. Levi wrote in 1876 that, “Both my parents and grandparents were opposed to slavery and 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.” (“Levi and Catharine Coffin” par. 5) During Levi’s childhood, his and Catharine’s families lived in North Carolina, a slave state. Levi’s encounter with the chained slaves who were taken from their families sparked an unquenchable fire in him.
Levi jumped at an opportunity to help a slave escape when he was fifteen years old. Young Levi was at a corn husking where he met Stephen, who had not been born a slave! Levi found out that Stephen was born in the North as a free person but was kidnapped into slavery in the South. Promptly, Levi maneuvered a way for Stephen to escape.
When he was doing abolition work, Levi probably met his future wife, Catharine. After they were married, Levi and Catharine moved to Indiana where he became an influential businessman. Their youthful experiences and financial success would soon support and fund a much grander abolitionist mission than Catharine and Levi had been involved with previously.
The Coffins proved themselves to be masters in running a secret, illegal operation. They first began hiding runaway slaves in the year 1826. Their eight-room home was specially modified to be an ideal hiding place with most of the rooms having two exits for escape. The Coffins had an immense attic where many could take refuge. The spring – fed well in the basement provided a constant supply of water.
The Coffin’s courageous convictions influenced their community. Neighbors who had before been too cowardly to act were emboldened from the example of the Coffins. They began donating money, food, and clothing to the operation. They also served as lookouts, warning the Coffins whenever a malicious slave catcher would appear. Additionally, the Coffins held a great deal of prominence in their community, partly from their flourishing business, which also served as a protection from prosecution and capture. Still, the Coffins had to be cautious. Levi wrote later about the normal procedure when escaping slaves would knock at the door at night, “I would invite them, in a low tone to come in, and they would follow me into the darkened house without a word, for we knew not who might be watching and listening.” (“Levi and Catharine Coffin” par. 11) The Coffins possessed skills, influence, and an altruistic attitude which allowed them to be a shining light through their secret operation to many a weary escaping slave.
After the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, The Coffins would continue to help the newly freed slaves. Levi was a member of the Western Freedmen’s Aid Society both during and after the Civil War. He managed to raise over one hundred thousand dollars for the society. Levi was an advocate for all the newly freed slaves, gathering food, clothing, and educational supplies for them. Focused on the freed slaves building new lives, he even collected money for them to start farms and businesses. Alongside their Underground Railroad work during the Civil War, the Coffins also helped in army hospitals and refugee camps for the escaped slaves.
The Coffins selfless giving and serving was rooted in their Biblical heritage. Levi recalled in his autobiography that he, “read 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.” (“Levi and Catharine Coffin” par. 9) Levi and Catharine Coffin’s strong Biblical foundation and abolitionist convictions led them to sacrificially serve and protect the most vulnerable around them, and the whole journey began when a young Levi was faced with injustice in the woods of North Carolina.
“Levi and Catharine Coffin.” www.indianahistory.org.