Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Coffin, Levi

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COFFIN, Levi, philanthropist, b. near New Garden, N.C., 28 Oct., 1798; d. in Avondale, Ohio, 16 Sept., 1877. His ancestors were natives of Nantucket. He assisted on his father's farm and had but little schooling, yet he became a teacher. The cruel treatment of the negroes, and the Quakers principles under which he was reared, enlisted his sympathies in favor of the oppressed race, and at the age of fifteen he began to aid in the escape of slaves. Subsequently, he organized a Sunday-school for negroes, and in 1822 opened his first school. In 1826, he settled in Wayne county, Ind., where he kept a country store. Being prosperous in this undertaking, he soon enlarged his business in various lines, including also the curing of pork. In 1836 he built an oil-mill and began the manufacture of linseed-oil. Meanwhile, his interest in the slaves continued., and he was active in the “underground railroad,” a secret organization, whose purpose was the transportation of slaves from member to member until a place was reached where the negro was free. Thousands of escaping slaves were aided on their way to Canada, including Eliza Harris, who subsequently became known through “Uncle Tom's Cabin.” The question of using only “free-labor goods” had been for some time agitated throughout the United States, and in 1846 a convention was held in Salem, Ind., at which Mr. Coffin was chosen to open such a store in Cincinnati. Accordingly he moved to that city in April, 1847. The undertaking proved successful, and he continued to be so occupied for many years. His relations with the “underground railroad” were also continued, and he became its president. In 1863 he was associated in the establishment of the Freedmen's bureau, and during the following year was sent to Europe as agent for the Western freedmen's aid commission. He held meetings in all the prominent cities in Great Britain, enlisted much sympathy, and secured funds. Again in 1867 he visited Europe in the same capacity. When the colored people of Cincinnati celebrated the adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the United States constitution, he formally resigned his office of president of the “underground railroad,” which he had held for more than thirty years. The story of his life is told in “Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad” (Cincinnati, 1876).