American antislavery activist Laura Smith Haviland (1808–1898) is not as well known as the great writers and orators of the Abolitionist movement, those whose ideas rallied the Northern public to the antislavery cause. Her experiences, however, were representative of what happened to those in the trenches of the fight to abolish slavery, a long and often dangerous struggle that demanded total commitment from its troops.
Haviland was a resident of southeastern Michigan, where she operated a station on the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses that conveyed fugitive slaves to Canada and freedom in the decades before the U.S. Civil War. Being part of the Underground Railroad was not a simple matter of opening one's home to slaves arriving under cover of night; it involved outwitting armed gangs, violent private investigators, and, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, law enforcement officers bent on returning slaves to Southern plantations. Much of her autobiography, A Woman's Life-Work , reads like an adventure novel. Haviland also established Michigan's first school open to children of all races, and she went undercover in the South before the war to learn firsthand about conditions there. She worked as a nurse during the Civil War and later traveled to various locations, trying to establish new institutions that would put newly freed slaves on a solid financial footing.
Haviland was born Laura Smith in Kitley Township, Leeds County, in what is now eastern Ontario. At the time of her birth on December 20, 1808, this was part of the British colonial province of Canada West. Her father, Daniel, was a Quaker minister, and her mother, Vermont-born Sene, was an elder in that church, which favored gender equality. When Laura was seven, the family moved to the largely wild Niagara County in New York, near the village of Cambria. The nearest schoolhouse was three miles away, and Laura was educated largely through her own interest in reading, with some help from a neighbor woman who had a daughter the same age as Laura. She had gone to school for four months in Canada, and in New York she borrowed every book she could find.
One of those books was a history of the slave trade by John Woolman, "of the capture and cruel middle passage of negroes," Haviland recalled in A Woman's Life-Work , "and of the thousands who died on their voyage and were thrown into the sea to be devoured by sharks, that followed the slave-ship day after day." She read the book until late at night, and even as her parents reassured her that the slave trade had been outlawed, she transferred her sympathies to the few African Americans she knew in her small town, men who often had to endure abuse from local groups of youths.
Another key experience of Haviland's youth came from the contrast she experienced between two of America's frontier religions. Although she was raised as a Quaker, her uncle Ira Smith was a Methodist, and she attended Methodist prayer meetings at her uncle's house. A woman with a powerful religious imagination who was moved by dreams and visions at various points in her life, she found herself drawn to the demonstrative interactions of Methodist worship more than to the more inward meditation of Quaker meetings. Her parents, however, put a stop to her visits. "This Methodist excitement is unprofitable, especially for children," they said, as Haviland recalled in A Woman's Life-Work . "They have an overheated zeal, that is not according to knowledge, and we do not think it best for thee to attend; we want our children at a suitable age to be actuated by settled principle, not mere excitement."
At 17 Laura married Quaker farmer Charles Haviland and temporarily set aside her religious quest. Her parents moved in 1826 to Raisin Township in Lenawee County, Michigan, near Adrian, in the first year of the county's existence. Laura and Charles Haviland and their two children joined them three years later, and at first Laura was occupied with the rigors of pioneer life in a 16-by-18-foot log cabin and with the responsibilities of raising a brood of children that eventually numbered eight.
Soon, however, the twinned issues of religion and slavery began to impinge upon her mind once again. Haviland became friends with another pioneer, Michigan abolitionist Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, and joined her in operating the Raisin Anti-Slavery Society, the first in the new state of Michigan. She played a major role in the society's activities after Chandler's death in 1834. The society's meetings were not sedate; two of them were menaced by gunfire from a local gang, which on one occasion hung a blackened doll from a tree outside the building where they were meeting and used it for target practice. The Havilands opened their home to fugitive slaves, making it the first Underground Railroad safe house in Michigan.
After an abortive attempt to start an integrated manual labor school in their home in 1837, Laura and Charles Haviland opened the Raisin Institute in 1839, "considered the first integrated, coeducational school to be opened anywhere in Michigan," according to Charles Lindquist in The Antislavery-Underground Railroad Movement: Lenawee County, Michigan, 1830–1860 . Laura Haviland noted in A Woman's Life-Work examples of white students who arrived at the school and were shocked to find themselves sharing classroom space with African Americans but whose prejudices disappeared as they attended integrated classes.
The slavery question was troublesome for American Protestant churches in the 1830s and 1840s, for slavery had already been outlawed in Britain, and biblical teachings on human equality were plain. The Methodists, however, were more inclined than the Quakers to take the lead in opposing the institution of slavery, partly because Quaker teachings demanded a consensus of all members before undertaking a course of social activism. As a result, Haviland and her husband left the Quaker faith and joined the Wolf Creek Wesleyan Methodist church in 1841.
A turning point in Haviland's life came in 1845, when her entire family contracted erysipelas, a serious skin disease caused by a bacterium of the strep family. Haviland lost her husband, both parents, and one of her children to the disease. She herself contracted it and almost died, but recovered. Facing heavy debts, she was advised by creditors to put her affairs in the hands of a trusted male, but she refused and resolved to carry on with the Raisin Institute. Several creditors later relented on their terms, and, Haviland wrote, "secret praise ascended to Him who melts away the mountain that seems impassable, making a way where there seemed no way."
After her husband's death, Haviland began to travel more widely in her efforts to aid escaped slaves. A series of ruses she executed at a hotel in Toledo, Ohio, in 1846 succeeded in keeping a family of slaves out of the clutches of slave hunters, who finally overtook Haviland on a train near Sylvania, Ohio, and at gunpoint demanded the return of their property. "Man, I fear neither your weapons nor your threats; they are powerless," Haviland responded, as recalled in A Woman's Life-Work . "You are not at home—you are not in Tennessee. And as for your property, I have none of it about me or on my premises. We also know what we are about; we also understand, not only ourselves, but you." A $3,000 bounty was placed on Haviland's head by slave hunters.
It did not discourage Haviland in the least; she responded by broadening the geographic range of her activi- ties. She made several trips to the key slave crossing point of Cincinnati, Ohio, on the border between slave and free states, on one occasion passing as black by joining a light-skinned black woman so that they could sneak onto a Kentucky plantation. She taught classes to ex-slaves in the basement of Zion Baptist Church and also established new schools in Toledo and at the Underground Railroad terminus of Windsor, Ontario. Beginning in 1852 she spent several years teaching school there.
Haviland's most daring trip occurred shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, when she traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the wife of a slave who had succeeded in reaching Michigan. Haviland traveled across the increasingly militant South, making notes on her experiences and answering frequent questions by saying that she was writing letters home. Masquerading as a traveling high-society woman, she struck up an acquaintance with the target family and wangled an invitation to their home. There she witnessed terrible beatings of slaves over minor deviations from procedure, and as she slipped out one night to talk to a few slave contacts she found herself face to face with a trio of bloodhounds. "I fixed my eyes upon the sparkling eyes of the leader, that came within six feet and stopped; soon the growl ceased, the lips dropped over the long tusks, the hair smoothed back, and he quietly walked off with his companions."
When the Civil War broke out, Haviland armed herself with letters of recommendation from Michigan's governor and from a congressional representative, and plunged into work supporting the Union. She nursed wounded soldiers and slaves, and she took up the cause of 3,000 Union soldiers held in hellish conditions on Gulf of Mexico islands, bringing about some improvement in their lot. After the war, Haviland set up schools in Kansas in order to meet the needs of African Americans who fled the rise of militant racism in the South in the 1870s. The towns of Haviland, Kansas, and Haviland, Ohio, were named after her. She worked for a time at the Freedman's Aid Bureau in Washington, D.C., where she became acquainted with the antislavery activist Sojourner Truth. One day the pair rode a streetcar together in defiance of the city's segregation laws, and the conductor attempted to force Truth to exit. Haviland interceded, whereupon the conductor asked whether Truth belonged to Haviland. "No," was Haviland's response, according to recollections of Truth appearing on the Havilands.com website, "she belongs to humanity."
Haviland wrote her autobiography, A Woman's Life-Work , in 1881; it is available online at the Project Gutenberg website, as well as on several other sites. She remained active until the end of a life that was unusually long and healthy although lacking in comforts and material resources. In later years she lived with a relative in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Laura Smith Haviland died on or around April 20, 1898. The location of her death has been variously reported as Grand Rapids and Grand Traverse County, Michigan, but the best contemporary report, an Adrian Daily Telegram article published on the day of her death, stated that she was living in Grand Rapids. A monument in her honor stands in front of Adrian's city hall.
Danforth, Mildred E., A Quaker Pioneer: Laura Smith Haviland, Superintendent of the Underground , Exposition, 1961.
Haviland, Laura S., A Woman's Life-Work , Walden & Stowe, 1882.
Lindquist, Charles, The Antislavery-Underground Railroad Movement in Lenawee County, Michigan, 1830–1860 , Lenawee County Historical Society, 1999.
"Laura Smith Haviland: Wesleyan Pioneer," History's Women: The Unsung Heroines, http://www.historyswomen.com/womenoffaith/LauraSmithHaviland.htm (December 20, 2006).
"Lenawee County Michgian Monument #11: Dedicated to Laura Smith Haviland," http://www.geocities.com/lenaweemi/monu11.html (December 20, 2006).
"Mrs. Laura (Smith) Haviland—Philanthropist/Slavery Abolitionist," Havilands.com, http://www.havilands.org/HavilandsCom/Biographies/LauraSmithHaviland/index.html (February 14, 2007).