Category Archives: North Carolina

Levi Coffin’s Early Struggles with Slavery

Greensboro Historical Museum (Source: MuseumTrustee.org)

Greensboro Historical Museum (Source: MuseumTrustee.org)

I count among my many privileges the opportunity to serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum, located in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is a beautiful museum filled with wonderful artifacts and operated by a lean but talented and dedicated staff. My service includes occasionally serving at several stations for tours.

One of my stations is “Debating Liberty,” which contains several exhibits related to the causes of the Civil War. Several of the exhibits within the station tell the story of young Levi Coffin’s advocacy on behalf of a runaway slave, Ede.

Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad, was born in the Quaker community of New Garden, near modern-day Guilford College, and he lived there until he moved to Indiana in 1826 when he was 28 years old. His family was fervently anti-slavery and their views were well-known in the local community. While Quakers opposed slavery as part of their religious principles, one must understand that very few participated in the Underground Railroad, an illegal activity.

When his family lived in New Garden, Levi assisted runaway slaves in various ways. On one occasion a young slave, Ede, showed up at the home of Levi’s parents. She had taken her infant child to a wooded area to hide from her master, Dr. David Caldwell, when she learned that he planned to give her and her infant child to Dr. Caldwell’s son, who lived more than 100 miles from Greensboro. Ede was married to another slave (owned by a different master) and had three other children who would remain behind with Dr. Caldwell.

Ede and her infant child had spent several nights in the woods when the child became ill. She sought shelter and protection at the Coffin home due to the Coffins’ reputation. Levi’s parents took Ede and her child into their home, although it was a crime to harbor runaways. Levi then went to visit the Caldwells in an effort to dissuade Dr. Caldwell from bringing charges against his father and to prevail upon Dr. Caldwell to keep Ede in his household as a servant.

Ede and her infant (Photo by: Jim Gray)

Ede and her infant (Photo by: Jim Gray)

Dr. Caldwell was a prominent Guilford County citizen. He served as a physician, Presbyterian minister, and school master of a boys’ school (less than a mile from my current home). The young people of the community liked Dr. Caldwell for his wit and good humor. Dr. Caldwell graciously received Levi into his home and, after talking about a host of other matters, Mrs. Caldwell entered the room. Levi informed the Caldwells that Ede and her child were being cared for by his parents. Mrs. Caldwell expressed her thanks that Levi’s mother had cared for the child and said that she had only reluctantly given her consent to Ede being separated from her family.

Levi asked whether his father had done right in taking in Ede and her child in violation of the law, thus making himself liable for a heavy criminal penalty if Dr. Caldwell was disposed to prosecute.

Dr. Caldwell told Levi that he had preached a very good sermon and he feared Levi might give up the prospect of becoming a preacher if he was not successful in his first effort. He said Levi’s father had done right and need not fear prosecution. Ede could come home and Dr. Caldwell would not send her away.

Thus, Levi Coffin could cite an early success in his struggle against slavery, a campaign he said he waged until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I will discuss the significance and legal limitations of that famous document in my next article.

Until then, if you live near Greensboro or are coming through in your travels, make a stop to tour the best historical museum between Washington, DC, and Atlanta.

SOURCES:

Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (Second Edition). Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1880 (available electronically from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html).

Greensboro Historical Museum, greensborohistory.org.

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Filed under history, North Carolina, slavery, Underground Railroad

Thomas Day – “A Free Person of Color”

In my novel New Garden, p. 140, I make a brief reference to Thomas Day:

Ellen McAllister had selected all of the home’s furnishings with the exception of those in her husband’s study. Some came from her childhood home in southside Virginia, but most were made by Thomas Day, a free African-American furniture maker who operated a shop in Milton, North Carolina.

Statue of Thomas Day

Statue of Thomas Day (Source: NCPedia.org)

Anyone familiar with the work of Thomas Day knows that antebellum wealthy citizens of North Carolina and Virginia, especially tobacco plantation owners in the Dan River Basin on the Virginia-North Carolina border, prized furniture manufactured by Day.

Day was born in 1801 in southern Virginia, the child of “free persons of color.” He learned his cabinet making skills from his father, who moved the family to Warren County in 1817. In 1825, Day moved to Milton in Caswell County on the Virginia border.

Day quickly acquired a reputation for excellence. Buyers sought not only his furniture, but also fireplace mantles, stair railings, and newel posts for their homes. His pieces were largely of the popular Empire style, but some details often deviated from the norm, giving them a unique sought-after Thomas Day touch. Demand grew to a point that by 1850, he operated the largest furniture factory in North Carolina. He used the latest tools of the period, including machinery powered by steam engines. His employees included slaves that he owned, who worked alongside white employees. In 1838, his white employees included five Moravians of German descent.

As was true in many other states in 1830, North Carolina law prohibited free blacks from migrating into the state. Day had fallen in love with a free black Virginian, Aquilla Wilson. Day’s reputation within North Carolina’s elite was such that 61 white citizens of Milton signed a petition to the state legislature asking that an exception to the law be made for Miss Wilson. The exception was granted, allowing Thomas and Aquilla Day to live together as man and wife.

Milton Presbyterian Church

Milton Presbyterian Church (Source: LearnNC.org)

Day straddled two worlds. He catered to the white elite while negotiating the laws that restricted the movements of persons of color. He sent his children to Wesleyan Academy in Massachusetts for their education. He attended at least one abolitionist meeting in New York City in 1850. On the other hand, his shop built the pews for Milton Presbyterian Church, where his family sat among the white parishioners while slaves and other free persons of color sat upstairs. By 1850, he also owned fourteen slaves, but they likely were slaves in name only, as North Carolina law placed severe restrictions on manumission of slaves. New Garden, p. 202.

Like most American businesses, Day’s enterprise suffered from the economic downturn brought on by the Panic of 1857. Day died in 1861, but he had left an indelible mark on the North Carolina economy, an example of what a free African American could accomplish if given only the slightest chance to succeed.

Thomas Day's workshop in Milton, NC

Thomas Day’s workshop in Milton, NC (Source: LearnNC.org)

For more about Thomas Day, go to the following sources:

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, history, North Carolina, slavery