Harriet Tubman and John Brown are names readily associated with the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by nineteenth century slaves in the United States to escape to the northern states or Canada, and freedom.
During the early research for Kindred (which deals largely with issues of slavery), I began to wonder about the hundreds, maybe thousands, of nameless men and women who first harbored escaped slaves, or conducted them northward in their flight. The Underground Railroad didn’t simply spring into being one day in the 19C, fully realized and operational. There had to be a first man or woman to help an escaping slave along her road. But who were they? And when did they get the notion, and the courage, to do so?
There can be no knowing, since a huge element of the success of such endeavors was secrecy. No doubt many an early abolitionist carried his secrets to the grave.
Recently author Laura Frantz posted on her blog about her historical heroes, and in pondering the question for myself, I knew that these unknown heroes who laid the first tracks for the Underground Railroad were some of mine.
One who stands in place for them all is a man named Levi Coffin. He was a Quaker, a North Carolinian with Nantucket roots, and he, along with 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.
Kindred is set some twenty-five years earlier, in 1793-4. Still my mind would not let go of the possibility that someone else, somewhere, had gotten the idea that it was a good thing to help escaping slaves to their freedom, in defiance of law and social pressure. And then I found what might have been the impetus for the taking of such risky action.
The year 1792 saw the publishing of the first slave narrative, by Olaudah Equiano (as portrayed by Youssou N’Dourin in one of my favorite films, Amazing Grace).
Between my knowledge of Equiano’s narrative, and my surmises on the grassroots beginnings of the URR, was born two of Kindred‘s secondary characters, the Quaker, Benjamin Eden, a passionate abolitionist, and Thomas Ross, a free black man who has never known slavery, has been raised in a white family, and 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, visit author Carla Gade’s geneaology blog. Small world that it is, turns out Levi Coffin is mentioned in Carla’s family tree.
*Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, by Fergus M. Bordewich.
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