Laura Haviland Neglected Heroine of the UGRR

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Engraving of Laura Smith Haviland, the American abolitionist.

Abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Laura Haviland certainly hasn’t been forgotten.

Her statute has been sitting outside the city hall of Adrian, Michigan, since 1909. But while Harriet Tubman is mythologized, Laura remains virtually unknown outside Michigan.

Helps Organize Michigan’s First Antislavery Society

Born a Quaker in the township of Kitley, Ontario, north of the St. Lawrence River, she was brought up with a hatred of slavery and exposed at an early age to the horrors of the slave trade by the writings of John Woolman. Her sympathy for people of color was aroused as a child when a black kitchen helper at an inn was severely burned because of a prank by schoolboys.

At the age of seventeen, she married Charles Haviland and after the birth of their first two children, they followed her parents to Lewanee County, Michigan. The role of mother and caretaker suited her compassionate nature and she often nursed others outside her family.

In the 1830’s, she helped organize Michigan’s first antislavery society, and the Havilands were among the first in Michigan to aid fugitive slaves.

Haviland’s desire to help the unfortunate, especially her affinity for orphan children, led her in 1836 to open a manual labor school, the Raisin Institute. She opened it to all races and modeled it after Oberlin College, which her brother Harvey had attended. The school also became known as a refuge for fugitive slaves.

Aid to Fugitive Slaves

“As the fleeing fugitive ever found a resting-place and cheer in our home, we richly earned the cognomen of ‘nigger den,’ ” she wrote to Wilbur Siebert in 1893, “yet Heaven smiled and blessed our work.”

Then in 1845, tragedy struck. An epidemic took the lives of her husband, her father, her mother, her sister, and her 22-month-old baby. Nevertheless, she carried on, managing the farm and the school, and had her first confrontations with southerner seeking their escaped slaves whom she had helped. The first involved an emancipated slave Willis Hamilton and his fugitive slave wife, Elsie, who were sharecroppers on the Haviland farm.

A letter, allegedly from Willis’s former owner, Deacon Bayliss, who had helped him with the escape of Elsie, said he was sick in a hotel in nearby Toledo and asked the Hamiltons to visit. It was suspicious, so instead of the Hamiltons, Laura went with one of her sons, and James Martin, a black adult student, posing as Willis.

At the hotel was Elsie’s owner, Dr. Chester, and his son disguised as a sick Bayliss. The ruse was obvious and on the train back to Adrian, a confrontation took place with the Chesters threatening Haviland with guns.

Some months later, a stranger visited the Haviland. He said he was a sales agent for the famed abolitionist newspaper, National Era, and was interested in learning about the Underground Railroad in southern Michigan. Haviland was suspicious and gave the following warning: “Let any slaveholder disturb an escaped slave, at any time of night or day, and the sound of a tin horn will be heard, with a dozen more answers in different locations, and men enough will gather around the fugitive for his rescue.”

Haviland suspected that the visitor was a spy. In fact, he was seeking information about John White, a fugitive slave who had attended the Raisin Institute and was working on a neighboring farm. She sent word to White, who left for Canada the next day.

After the slavecatchers left, White returned and asked Haviland’s help in reuniting him with his family still in slavery. She agreed but was eventually unsuccessful, though she went to Kentucky and met with his wife. She did, however, help another slave family escape. During this time she met Levi Coffin with whom she developed a close relationship.

Boards with Levi Coffin

The Raisin Institute was forced to close in 1847, and Haviland moved to Cincinnati to board with the Coffins and devote all her time to antislavery. During this four-year period, she taught at a school for black girls and aided fugitive slaves. She also took a dangerous trip to Louisville to help Calvin Fairbank get legal help after he was arrested for aiding a fugitive slave a second time.

When Haviland left Cincinnati, she had two more important missions: one to operate a school for black children in Toledo, and to run a school for fugitive slaves at Henry Bibb’s Home Refugee Society in Windsor, Canada.

Meets John Fairfield

Haviland witnessed one of the most memorable incidents of the Underground Railroad when John Fairfield arrived there with 27 fugitive slaves he had led from Kentucky.

In 1856 she reopened the Raisin Institute. In the years up to the Civil War, enrollment rose above 200 students and there were frequent visits from fugitive slaves. She also took one last trip into the South to assist a slave in Little Rock , Arkansas. She found lodging in the home of slaveowners on the boat down to Arkansas. However, she failed to bring the slave back after suspicions about her arose.

Final Years Aiding Freedmen

The Raisin Institute closed for the last time in 1864. Haviland sold the school to the State Freedmen’s Aid Commission who turned it into a home for orphans, and she undertook a mission into the South to nurse wounded soldiers and care for freedmen.

Following the War, she continued this work and in 1879, when blacks from the South began pouring into Kansas because of the Ku Klux Klan, she went to assist them with Sojourner Truth, with whom she had become acquainted after her move to Michigan. In 1883, she directed a mission at Hell’s Half Acre, Kansas, which was renamed Haviland after her.

References:

  1. Mildred E Danforth, A Quaker Pioneer (New York: Exposition Press, Inc., 1961).
  2. Laura Haviland, A woman’s life-work: labors and experiences of Laura S. Haviland (Walden & Stowe, 1882).