President of the Underground Railroad visits Birmingham

Levi Coffin [Memoirs of Levi Coffin, Black History Collection]

Levi Coffin [Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, Black History Collection ref 326.973]

Between the years 1863 and 1865, American abolitionists became increasingly concerned about the welfare of slaves freed following Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864, Levi Coffin, an American Quaker (1798 – 1877) from Cincinnati, Ohio, acting as an agent of the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, decided to visit England.

Having been brought up in a family who were opposed to slavery, Coffin had been involved in helping slaves since he was a young man. Together with his wife, he provided shelter and provisions for runaway slaves escaping northwards to find freedom in Canada. Their home became a crucial part of the Underground Railroad and Coffin came to be known as its president. In a letter dated June 15th 1864 to Benjamin Cadbury and Arthur Albright of the Birmingham Freedmen’s Aid Association, he  explained,

The number of slaves I have had the privilege of assisting in their escape from slavery is over 3000. The most of these I have had the satisfaction of sheltering under my roof and feeding at my table. This has been through the course of more than thirty years past, and mostly before this cruel war commenced.

(Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association,  ref MS 3338/1)

By 1863, Coffin’s work took a different course. Having travelled to the camps where thousands of freed slaves were sent, three quarters of whom were women, children and the sick, Coffin was acutely aware of the destitute conditions in which they were living and their need for bedding, clothing and food. He decided to devote his time to helping the freed slaves, and working with the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission established that year, he travelled around the country raising awareness of the plight of the freedmen, visiting freedmen’s associations, asking for provisions or money and receiving and forwarding donations to where they were most needed.

As part of this work, Coffin thought that by sharing what he knew about the conditions and needs of the thousands of newly emancipated slaves, the British would be willing to help by providing supplies and raising money. He stated that,

…my mission was not to be confined to the Society of Friends. It was anti-sectarian, and my appeal in behalf of the freedmen was intended for the British public.

(Reminisces of Levi Coffin, 1876, p.657, Black History Collection ref 326.973)


Extract from the Birmingham Daily Gazette, 1st July 1864,  reporting on a meeting at Hannah Sturge’s house [Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association, ref MS 3338/1]

In May 1864 he travelled to Britain for a one year visit, during which he travelled around the country publicising the situation of the emancipated slaves, and in particular establishing contacts with the newly formed Freed Men’s Aid Associations. At the end of June 1864, he was invited by Mrs Hannah Sturge (1816–1896), the widow of Joseph Sturge, the Quaker anti-slavery campaigner, to her house in Wheeley’s Road, Edgbaston to address a meeting. Like her husband, Mrs Sturge was an active supporter of abolition and was a member of the Ladies Negro’s Friend Society and the Free Produce Committee which promoted the education of girls in Jamaica. At the meeting, which was attended by a large number of men and women, Coffin  gave his full support to the Birmingham Freed Men’s Aid Association which had been established earlier in the same month, explaining that there were tens of thousands of refugees, with around 50 000 in camps on the Mississippi, and similar numbers in camps in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, and that the numbers were expected to rise to half a million by the end of the year. He told the meeting that the freed slaves needed everything and,

 …everything that the people of Birmingham might give would be thankfully received,  and would be of great benefit.

(‘Daily Gazette’, 1 July 1864,  reprinted in Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, 1876, Black History Collection ref 326.973)

As a result of the meeting, spontaneous and substantial contributions of money and goods, as well as other aid were offered to the Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association, and a number of new members joined the Association.


Invitation to a public meeting attended by Levi Coffin at Priory Rooms, 26 July 1864 [ref MS 3338/1]

The following month Coffin was invited to attend a public meeting, organised by the Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association, and held on 26th July 1864 at Priory Rooms. The organisers anticipated that the presence of Coffin and a description of his achievements would encourage the people of Birmingham to show their support for the freed slaves. They hoped it would be,

…a fitting occasion to demonstrate at once the respect entertained for this man of great deeds but few words, the simple and unostentatious friend of the Coloured Negro American people, and the sympathy felt for like-minded fellow-christians, co-operating with him in the Unites States; and also further serve to solicit the best feelings of our townsmen, for the million refugees from slavery, now free in America…

(Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association,  ref MS 3338/1)

Coffin returned to Birmingham on 6th January 1865 as one of the speakers at a conference and evening event at Priory Rooms, again organised by the Birmingham Freedmen’s Aid Association. The conference was attended by a special delegation from the American National Freedmen’s Relief Association of New York, members of the London Freedmen’s Aid Society and other such societies as well as church ministers, members of their congregations and others willing to assist in the relief campaign. Coffin reported on the success of his tour around Britain, stating that he had been well received everywhere and that many new Men’s and Ladies’ Associations had been formed and were doing good work. Members of the conference attributed much of the increased awareness of the British public and press of the plight of the emancipated slaves to Coffin’s work since his arrival in Britain:

This conference rejoices to believe that the very urgent claims of the Freedmen of America have now obtained an encouraging amount of public sympathy and attention, both from the press and public, as evidenced by the many unanimous public meetings held to hear Levi Coffin;

(Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association,  ref MS 3338/1)

Although he had not asked for donations since he saw it was his duty to present the facts about the situation of the freed slaves, by the time Coffin returned to America, he had raised $100 000 for the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission. The impact of his visit to Birmingham was later described by his friend, Arthur Albright:

It is not too much to say that his visit to the town was the first link of the chain that united the suffering Freedmen with the sympathies of Great Britain.

(Anti-slavery Conference Report, Paris 1867, Black History Collection, ref 326.4)

Eleanor (Project Archivist, Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)

2 responses to “President of the Underground Railroad visits Birmingham

  1. Pingback: Birmingham Freed Men’s Aid Association | The Iron Room

  2. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    #AbolitionofSlavery #Emancipation #HumanRightsforall #Slavery #Africa #Slaves #AmericanCivilWar #AbrahamLincoln #TheGettysbergAddress

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