By Nikole Darnell
On February 7, the staff members of the Digital Literature Review took a trip to Cincinnati, Ohio to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The experience was phenomenal; each member took a particular interest in various aspects of the museum and learned a great deal. Having an extensive Quaker heritage, I was particularly interested in the role that members of the Quaker church played in helping oppressed slaves escape to freedom.
When people hear about Quakers and the Underground Railroad, they often picture a strict and pious group of people who were unconditionally against slavery and opened up their homes to runaways. I admit, I often thought this as well in my younger years. While Quakers did aid slaves on their journeys to freedom, this wasn’t always the case. According to displays at the museum, prior to 1740, many members of the Quaker church actively participated in the purchasing and selling of enslaved people. I was personally surprised to learn this. Ever since I was little, I had been told that all Quakers were against slavery and that they always had been. The museum states that the church initially did not oppose slavery, but over time they became disgusted by the practice and set out to do something about it. The Freedom Center does an excellent job of demonstrating how Quakers participated in the Underground Railroad and led the way in the antislavery movement.
As one travels through the museum, they find themselves walking a timeline, following the lives of brave men and women who dedicated their lives to the cause of abolitionism. Quaker minister Samuel Hopkins was one of these people. In 1758, the Quaker church, led by Hopkins, voted to exclude members who continued to participate in the purchasing or selling of slaves. The museum credits Hopkins as one of the first people to actively argue for antislavery. His ideas spread, and by 1776, the majority of the Quaker church opposed the practice of slavery. From this time until emancipation in 1865, many Quakers across the nation offered their homes to escaped slaves and helped them find their way to freedom. Throughout the museum, several donated artifacts that belonged to individual abolitionists are visible, such as a ceramic figure of Uncle Tom and a first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Perhaps the most well-known of the Quaker abolitionists depicted at the Freedom Center are Levi and Catharine Coffin. According to the museum, the Coffins turned their home in Newport, Indiana into a safe house, and it is estimated that they hid over 2000 runaways. In 1847, they moved to Cincinnati and opened a warehouse that produced goods exclusively made by paid labor. From 1861 until their deaths, the Coffins raised money to benefit the education of former slaves. In a single year alone, they managed to raise more than $100,000. Today, their house in Newport (now known as Fountain City, Indiana) is open as a museum and as a surviving testament to the kindhearted work that the Coffins accomplished throughout their lives. I feel that the Freedom Center’s exhibit on the Coffins would be strengthened by possibly borrowing artifacts from the Coffin House Museum. As it currently stands, the Freedom Center has little on the Coffins other than very generic information. After all, at one point, Levi Coffin was known as the “president of the Underground Railroad.”
While I previously knew about Quaker involvement in the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad Freedom Center also showed how many Quakers were also strong proponents of women’s suffrage. As a result, they highlight the ways that many activists took on multiple and connected instances of injustice. Well-known activist Susan B. Anthony grew up in a Quaker household and dedicated her life to abolition and women’s suffrage. Likewise, fellow Quaker and suffragette Lucretia Mott actively participated in anti-slavery propaganda. In 1833, she attended the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, and the 1848 “Declaration of Sentiments” meeting at Seneca Falls. Afterwards in 1850, she published her book, Discourse on Women.
According to the Freedom Center, writing became a very powerful tool that the Quakers used to combat slavery. In 1857, Daniel Worth circulated Hinton Rowan Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South, which stated that slavery would undoubtedly lead to the South’s downfall. Worth was arrested in North Carolina for promoting the book under the pretenses of violating the state’s “incendiary publications” law of 1830. This law banned books that portrayed slaves being unhappy in their given situation. The Freedom Center also displays other famous Quaker writers of this time, including the Grimké sisters, Angelia and Sarah. In 1835, Angelina Grimké published a pamphlet entitled, An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, which pleaded with women of the time to oppose slavery and stated that slavery went against Christian values. Along with display, the museum has an abundant amount of information about how Quakers were actively involved in abolitionist activities.
I found my visit to Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad Freedom Center to be an incredibly invaluable experience. The museum does an effective job of arranging the exhibits so that they display slavery in a sensitive manner, while still portraying its evils and providing an educational experience for the public. Any visitor to the museum will learn a great deal about the struggles and oppression of slaves and their journey to freedom. Additionally, it manages to preserve the history of abolitionism and depict how certain groups, such as the Quakers, played a role in putting an end to one of America’s darkest periods. Whether it’s hiding runaway slaves or publishing work about the atrocities of slavery, Quakers certainly made their mark in the world of abolitionism. I personally learned a lot about these courageous people and I feel confident in saying that many future visitors will as well.