Honoring ancestors motivates women

In about 1805, a group of slaves chained together and driven by a man flourishing a long whip happened by 7-year-old Levi Coffin and his father, both devout Quakers.

"Well, boys, why do they chain you?" asked his father.

"They have taken us from our wives and children and they chain us lest we should make our escape and go back to them," replied one of the slaves "whose expression denoted the deepest sadness." (Reminisces of Levi Coffin, p. 12-13.)

Thus was born an abolitionist as the 7-year-old considered, "How terribly we should feel if father were taken away from us."

Levi Coffin, who is referred to as the president of the Underground Railroad, (see www.waynet.org/nonprofit/coffin.htm) is among those featured in a newly opened museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. As a prosperous and respected merchant, Coffin helped an estimated 3,000 slaves escape to Canada.

In attendance at the dedication of the Freedom Center were Laurie Seron of Salt Lake City and Serena Wilson, descendants of some who helped operate the Underground Railroad.

The two held a planned reunion at the dedication of the new center to commemorate the accomplishments of their ancestors who operated the Underground Railroad from opposite ends.

Sister Seron of Salt Lake City is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Elihu Coffin, Levi's cousin who also worked on the Underground Railway. Serena Wilson's ancestor Tom Farrow, a slave, was a contemporary of Coffin on the Underground Railroad. His son Peter, and daughter-in-law, Eliza, followed suit. She was a quiltmaker and midwife who, using secret song and quilt codes, gave information to her fellow slaves as they escaped to freedom.

Both Sister Seron of the Cottonwood 6th Ward, Salt Lake Big Cottonwood Stake, and Mrs. Wilson, a Baptist, share a common passion for knowing their roots and preserving the heritage and deeds of their 19th century forebears.

"I want to tell young people how brave and brilliant these people were," said Mrs. Wilson. "God delivered the children of Israel, and I believe He delivered us in 1865." She said that as young people learn of the Underground Railroad, they understand that many of that era practiced the Golden Rule.

She explained that her grandmother swore her to secrecy about a code used by fugitive slaves. She kept her knowledge of the code quiet until 1995, but then began to share it because "we now have a civil rights bill" and because the past needs to be remembered.

Included in the code were songs and quilts that carried messages. For example, lyrics of the spiritual, "Steal away, steal away, I ain't got long to stay here," was a message "that you would soon be leaving, and that you would go secretly," she said, explaining that this meant it was time to gather food, such as roast corn, sweet potatoes or peanuts.

The quilts, with such symbols as a monkey wrench (used to repair wagons), the north star, a bear paw and River Jordan would carry such messages as: Start on up the road in a drunkard's path (zigzagging to avoid pursuit), follow the North Star (northward to Ohio) on a bear's path over the mountains (staying away from main roads. Bears were thought to know the shortest route) to the River Jordan (Ohio River) which could provide food, and over which lay freedom.

Mrs. Wilson was sharing this information in 2002 in a plantation house in South Carolina when Laurie Seron entered. The two met, compared their roots and through a mutual appreciation for the past, became friends. Exchanging e-mail, they corresponded often and agreed to meet again at the dedication of the Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Mrs. Wilson said she appreciates one of Laura Seron's attributes: "She is not ashamed of her ancestors (or what they did)."

Sister Seron knows her ancestors well. She inherited a great deal of family history work from her mother, Margaret, whose family were traditional Quakers. She also inherited a non-prejudicial attitude and a deep desire to help the downtrodden. In her lifetime, she's helped at-risk children, provided food for a homeless shelter, and been a fund raiser for underprivileged families.

A few years ago, she and her brother, John Martindale of Sandy, Utah, realized "we needed to start preserving the legacy of how our family served humanity."

She is also conference director for the Worldwide Organization for "Women and Their influence for Good," to be held Sept. 17 in Salt Lake City. She and Mrs. Wilson will address this gathering, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Family. See www.wowinfo.org.

Concern for the family was also paramount with her great-great-uncle, Levi Coffin.

"We knew not what hour of the night we would be roused from slumber by a gentle rap at the door," he wrote in his memoirs. "Outside in the cold or rain, there would be a two-horse wagon loaded with fugitives, perhaps the greater part of them women and children. . . . The companies varied in number, from two or three fugitives to seventeen" (Coffin, p. 112).

A devout believer in the Golden Rule, he felt the Lord prospered him for his support of the fugitive slaves.

On a business trip to North Carolina in 1828, he witnessed a slave auction. A "fine looking woman" with a year-old child in her arms was auctioned, recommended as "industrious, honest, and, above all, she was a Christian. . . . She was sold for a high price. . . . The mother begged her new master to buy her child, but he did not want it. The child was sold to another man, but when he came to take it from her, she clasped her arms around it tighter than ever and clung to it. Her master came up and tore it from her arms amid her piercing shrieks and cries and dragged her away."

As Levi Coffin recoiled a distance from the scene, "I could hear the voice of the slave mother as she screamed, 'My child, my child!' " and, haunted for weeks by the incident, he "resolved to labor more for the cruelly oppressed slaves" (Coffin, pp. 126-28).

His near-descendant, Laurie Seron, and her friend Serena Wilson, by their willingness to honor their heritage, are continuing to do for their ancestors what they cannot do for themselves as the "heart of the children (is turned) to their fathers" (Malachi 4:6).