Quakers and the Underground Railroad

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One thing Quakers have been known for is their pre-Civil War anti-slavery stance and their work with the Underground Railway.

Quaker leader George Fox, after a trip to Barbados, where he saw conditions slaves endured, pleaded with members of the sect to release their slaves even though they had treated them well.

Quakers Released Slaves

Not only did many Quakers release their slaves, but they saw to it that they could take care of themselves, teaching them to read and write and, in many cases, seeing that they were escorted to states or territories where they could live in freedom.

Quaker John Woolman was involved with the abolitionist movement from an early date. He traveled the countryside, preaching against slavery. Woolman, born in 1720, became convinced that slavery was wrong when, at the age 20, he was asked by his employer to write a bill of sale for a slave girl. He did write it, but told his boss that he “believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion.” Shortly after this incident, Woodman left his job to travel and was instrumental in spreading the abolitionist message.

Quakers and the Underground Railroad

Quaker sensitivity to the needs of freed slaves led to their prominent role with the Underground Railroad, the system whereby slaves were helped to escape to northern states and Canada.

The Underground Railroad, while not a railroad at all, was the means of transportation for thousands of slaves. The abolitionist movement had begun during the Colonial era and, thanks to the ministry of the Quakers, it spread throughout the states and territories in the early 1800s.

During peak years between 1835 and 1860, the UGRR had thousands of “conductors” and “operators” and included non-Quakers. Later on, in “free states”, many were former slaves. All participants were in danger of arrest. These people smuggled escaped slaves through an amazing network of “safe houses” and hidden routes.

Slaves traveled at night and were hidden during the day at stops along the UGRR. These were often homes where they were fed, could rest, were provided clothes and given directions to the next stop. Some homes had hidden rooms or even tunnels.

Levi Coffin’s Underground Railroad Role

One of the most famous men involved in the UGRR was Levi Coffin, a Quaker businessman who became known as “president” of the UGRR. He was born in North Carolina and moved to Wayne Co., IN, in 1826. With the help of his wife, Catharine, he helped more than 2,000 slaves in their quest for freedom.

“Seldom a week passed without our receiving passengers by this mysterious road,” Coffin said. “We found it necessary to be always prepared to receive such company and properly care for them.” Their home became known as “Grand Central Station”. The Coffin home in Fountain City, Indiana, is now a National Historic Landmark Open to the Public.

In 1814, the Coffins moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they opened a general merchandise store that dealt only in goods made by the labor of free men and women. After the Civil War, Coffin raised funds to aid the newly freed African Americans.

The Underground Railroad was most active in areas heavily populated by Quakers. Bucks County, PA, at one time had 77 UGRR agents and Morgan Co., OH, had more than 70. The Quakers also were, in many cases, successful in persuading their neighbors of the evils of slavery and in enlisting their help for the UGRR.

Source:

  1. Cameron, Judy, and Bachelor, Rosemary, “Quakers in the Anti-Slavery Movement,” The Second Boat, Vol. 17, No. 6, Winter, 1998.