Category Archives: Underground Railroad

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Underground Railroad

This is the second in a series of articles in which I will share my methodology for crafting a story which I hope is both interesting and informative. In my first article, I discussed slavery in the context of the slaveholding household and women’s non-existent legal rights. This week, I turn to the underground railroad, which played a significant role in the antebellum history of Guilford County, North Carolina.

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Levi Coffin                          Source: Biography.com

Among the underground railroad’s leaders was its unofficial president, Levi Coffin, who was born in the Quaker community of New Garden. He moved to another Quaker community in Richmond County, Indiana, as a young man and later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

My research for the novel included many hours of perusing microfilm of the period’s weekly newspaper, the Greensborough Patriot. Although the newspaper’s editor, often spoke out against slavery, he married a woman who owned slaves and he ran advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves. Slavery, as they say, was a “peculiar institution,” and William Swaim was not the only person who fell in love with someone whose circumstances differed dramatically from his or her own.

My research also included many hours researching the Greensboro Public Library’s rare books room. There and from many other sources, I learned much about the operation of the underground railroad. Nails were sometimes hammered into the bottom of fence rails as a sign that a farmhouse was a safehouse for runaways – a “station” on the underground railroad. “Station masters” sometimes hid runaways in cellars, not in a typical cellar, but one with a niche dug adjacent to an open square, with barrels or other objects employed to conceal the niche.

New Garden includes one chapter (pages 12-14) dedicated to Tom and Sara Grier’s operation of a station on the underground railroad. I open the chapter with a newspaper advertisement similar to one a subscriber might read in an 1843 edition of the Greensborough Patriot:

$20 REWARD

Ran away from the subscriber on Sunday the 5th of September, instant, a negro man, named JOE, about 5 feet, 9 inches high, black complection, a cook by trade. It is suspected that he is attempting to get to a free State in company with some free negroes. The last account of him he was in Asheboro; had on a white hat, and in his shirtsleeves. The above reward will be given for his apprehension and confinement, or delivery to me in Wentworth. JAS. W. WOODLEY Oct. 21st.

The story then goes on to find Joe near the Grier farmhouse:

The sun’s last rays finally dropped below the western tree line. Joe rubbed his left hand along the bottom rail of the split-rail fence, just as the blacksmith at the last station had instructed. This had to be the right house. ****

The story continues, as Joe, with some trepidation, knocks on the door and is admitted into the farmhouse. Tom leads Joe into the cellar to change into different clothes.

Tom led Joe down the ladder. At first glance the cellar appeared to be a twenty-by-twenty-foot square. When Tom removed some barrels, however, there was an additional four-by-eight-foot space off to one side with a cot in the middle.

The next day, Tom transports Joe in a false-bottom wagon to the next station. A runaway would not spend his entire journey in such a wagon, but he would do so when traveling through areas where he might be seen.

Joe crawled into the false bottom. He could barely move. Stories about the slave ships sailing the Middle Passage from Africa’s Gold Coast had passed through generations of American slaves. The slave trade had been so profitable that the ship captains had crammed Africans into every available crevice. As Joe thought of those horrible stories, his mouth opened into a wide grin. This was a different vessel, one that would carry him to freedom. He would escape the land of the Pharaohs while walking this earth, unlike the millions of his brethren who listened to the slave preachers and would do so only after drawing their last breath.

In just a few paragraphs or pages, the reader learns about an evening on the Underground Railroad. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

 

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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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Quakers as Slave Owners

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Anyone who has studied the antebellum period knows that slavery violated Quaker principles and that some Quakers participated in the Underground Railroad. One of the most notable Quakers in the Underground Railroad was Levi Coffin, who was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, but as a young man moved to Indiana and later to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served in the unofficial capacity of “president” of the Underground Railroad). But it was not always so. For well over one hundred years, slave ownership did not violate Quaker principles. Some Quakers owned slaves prior to the American Revolution and others retained that status even after the American colonists won their freedom from Great Britain.

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

In that most propitious of years, 1776, the Society of Friends made the purchase of slaves a disownable offense (i.e., a Quaker who persisted in violating that principle would be taken off the rolls of the Society). The issue then became how to handle those Quakers who already owned slaves or those who inherited slaves at a later date. The Society of Friends’ practice with respect to all Quaker principles was to persuade non-compliant Quakers to desist from actions inconsistent with those principles.

That was easier said than done in North Carolina, where state law forbade owners from freeing their slaves absent proof of some “meritorious” act, largely defined as some form of heroic conduct. The owner was also required to post bond with the court in an amount equal to the slave’s value – not easy when money was in short supply.

So how did North Carolina Quakers bring themselves into compliance with their religious principles if they lacked the wherewithal to post bond or proof of meritorious conduct? The North Carolina Yearly Meeting  (hereinafter “NC Society of Friends”) remedied the issue in 1808 by providing that Quaker slave owners could clear their consciences by transferring the slaves, in trust, to – drum roll please – the Society of Friends! Thus, the NC Society of Friends became one of the largest slave owners in the state.

In 1828, the NC Society of Friends owned more than seven hundred slaves. Of course, these African Americans were not treated as slaves, although they retained that status under North Carolina law. Over the years, the Quakers gradually achieved the slaves’ freedom by transferring the slaves to Quakers who left North Carolina to live in free states. Upon arrival in a free state, the Quaker “slave owner” would then set the slave free.

Thus, one should understand that although Quakers reached their anti-slavery principles almost ninety years before the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed the practice, they, too, took time to reject the institution as inconsistent with their moral principles and religious beliefs. Of course, they reached that conclusion without a bloodbath that took over six hundred thousand American lives.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see Seth B. Hinshaw’s The Carolina Quaker Experience (Chapter 12, “Effects of Slavery in the South”), Thomson-Shore, Inc., Dexter, MI (1984).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Quakers, slavery, Uncategorized, Underground Railroad