Harriet Tubman. John Brown. Frederick Douglas. Sojourner Truth. These are names readily associated with the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by nineteenth century slaves in the southern United States, and those who aided them, to escape to the northern states or Canada, and freedom.
While researching the first novel I wrote set in the late 18th century, a story dealing largely with issues of slavery, I began to wonder just when the Underground Railroad had its genesis. Who was that man or woman who first harbored an escaped slave from a neighboring plantation, or gave him food, or warned him of a house nearby where the dogs (or the people) were mean, or told him of a safer path to take? Who was the first farmer or tradesman to step out of their safety and comfort to actually accompany or "conduct" a slave northward in her flight? The Underground Railroad didn't spring into being one day in the early 19th century, fully realized and operational. There had to be a person, sometime, somewhere who, lacking support from neighbor or like-minded friend, decided to help an escaping slave along his daunting road to freedom.
Since a huge element of the success of such endeavors is secrecy, there can be no knowing exactly who they were. No doubt many an early abolitionist carried his or her secrets to the grave.
|Levi Coffin 1798-1877|
One who stands in place for them all, for me, is a man named Levi Coffin. He was a Quaker, a North Carolinian with Nantucket roots. He and his cousin, Vestal Coffin, became "the founders of the earliest known scheme to transport fugitives across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory to safety in the free states."* The year was 1819.
That's the earliest known scheme. But what about the woman, years prior, who opened her farmhouse door to a tentative knocking one evening after sunset, looked into the frightened eyes of a runaway and felt compelled to give her supper, or a place to sleep in the cow shed, or directions to a friend's home just across the county line to the north? My storyteller's mind wouldn't let go of the likelihood that someone else, somewhere, years before the Coffins, had gotten the idea in their head that it was a good thing, the right thing, to help escaping slaves to freedom, in defiance of law and social pressure. Then I found what might have been the impetus for the taking of such risky action.
Amazing Grace (at left is N'Dour as Equiano in a scene on the streets of London at what may well be the very first book signing... ever). Equiano, having become a Methodist due to the influence of the evangelical teachings of George Whitefield, bought his freedom from his master after many years of slavery. His unflinching portrayal of the horrors of slavery as practiced in the southern United States drew many on both sides of the Atlantic into the cause of abolition.
In the spring of 2004, armed with a copy of Equiano's narrative and a lot of burning questions, I set out on my own long journey back into the late 18th century, when the then 14 United States were still wobbling on foal's legs. Four years later I'd given myself a crash course in the era, and written a historical novel. Working titled Kindred, the story is set in 1793, a few years after Equiano's narrative was published, and some twenty-five years before Levi and Vestal Coffin founded their slave-freeing scheme. Between my knowledge of Equiano's narrative and my surmises on the grassroots beginnings of the Underground Railroad were born one of Kindred's secondary characters, Thomas Ross, a free black man in Boston who has never known slavery, who is shaken by the things he's read in Equiano's book, shaken out of complacency and onto a path that will forever change his and many others destiny.
For more information about Levi Coffin and the early years of the Underground Railroad, visit my fellow Colonial Quills contributor, author Carla Gade's geneaology blog. Small world that it is, turns out Levi Coffin is mentioned in Carla's family tree. Also check out the wonderful book by Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan.
*Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, by Fergus M. Bordewich.