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This Day in History: October 28th

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Before Harriet Tubman, Levi Coffin was helping escaped enslaved people race to freedom on the Underground Railroad. He was the unofficial president of the Underground Railroad,

Coffin was born on October 28, 1798, in modern-day Greensboro, North Carolina. The abolitionist aided thousands of runaway slaves on their flight to freedom. Coffin was a devout Quaker who opposed slavery despite his southern upbringing. He worked as a teacher for several years and opened a Sunday school for the enslaved with one of his family members. The school was soon forced to shut down after slave owners became alarmed. 

After moving to Indiana, Coffin discovered that he was on a route of the Underground Railroad, through which runaways were making their way from the South to Canada. Coffin and his wife, Catharine, turned their home into a safe stop for those escaping slavery traveling along the Underground Railroad. Many of the Coffins’ neighbors chose not to provide shelter for the runaways, but they would contribute supplies to help those who passed through the Coffin home.

In 1847, Coffin and his wife moved to Cincinnati, where he opened a store that sold goods made exclusively by the formerly enslaved. He continued his affiliation with the Underground Railroad until the American Civil War broke out. He then began his work with aiding those who were liberated. 

Both during and after the Civil War, Coffin served as a leading figure in the Western Freedmen’s Aid Society. He worked to eliminate slavery on the front and abroad and pressured the federal government to establish the Freedmen’s Bureau during the Civil War.

In 1864, Coffin went to England to raise funds and in 1867, he was a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris. Working for the freedmen’s cause in England and other parts of Europe, Coffin was able to raise more than $100,000 for the Society in one year. 

Coffin helped African Americans establish their own businesses and obtain educational opportunities. His autobiography, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, contains a look into American abolitionism. Coffin died on September 16, 1877, in Cincinnati and was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

The home of Levi and Catherine Coffin is a National Historic Landmark in Indiana and is open to the public for tours and visits.

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