11 While black conductors were often motivated by their own painful experiences, whites were commonly driven by religious convictions. Levi Coffin, a Quaker raised in North Carolina, explained, "The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color."
12 In the 1820s Coffin moved west to Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, where he opened a store. Word spread that fleeing slaves could always find refuge at the Coffin home. At times he sheltered as many as 17 fugitives at once, and he kept a team and wagon ready to convey them on the next leg of their journey. Eventually three principal routes converged at the Coffin house, which came to be the Grand Central Terminal of the Underground Railroad.
13 For his efforts, Coffin received frequent death threats and warnings that his store and home would be burned. Nearly every conductor faced similar risks -- or worse. In the North, a magistrate might have imposed a fine or a brief jail sentence for aiding those escaping. In the Southern states, whites were sentenced to months or even years in jail. One courageous Methodist minister, Calvin Fairbank, was imprisoned for more than 17 years in Kentucky, where he kept a log of his beatings: 35,105 stripes with the whip.
14 As for the slaves, escape meant a journey of hundreds of miles through unknown country, where they were usually easy to recognize. With no road signs and few maps, they had to put their trust in directions passed by word of mouth and in secret signs -- nails driven into trees, for example -- that conductors used to mark the route north.
15 Many slaves traveled under cover of night, their faces sometimes caked with white powder. Quakers often dressed their "passengers," both male and female, in gray dresses, deep bonnets and full veils. On one occasion, Levi Coffin was transporting so many runaway slaves that he disguised them as a funeral procession.
16 Canada was the primary destination for many fugitives. Slavery had been abolished there in 1833, and Canadian authorities encouraged the runaways to settle their vast virgin land. Among them was Josiah Henson.
17 As a boy in Maryland, Henson watched as his entire family was sold to different buyers, and he saw his mother harshly beaten when she tried to keep him with her. Making the best of his lot, Henson worked diligently and rose far in his owner's regard.
18 Money problems eventually compelled his master to send Henson, his wife and children to a brother in Kentucky. After laboring there for several years, Henson heard alarming news: the new master was planning to sell him for plantation work far away in the Deep South. The slave would be separated forever from his family.
19 There was only one answer: flight. "I knew the North Star," Henson wrote years later. "Like the star of Bethlehem, it announced where my salvation lay. "
20 At huge risk, Henson and his wife set off with their four children. Two weeks later, starving and exhausted, the family reached Cincinnati, where they made contact with members of the Underground Railroad. "Carefully they provided for our welfare, and then they set us thirty miles on our way by wagon."
21 The Hensons continued north, arriving at last in Buffalo, N. Y. There a friendly captain pointed across the Niagara River. "'Do you see those trees?' he said. 'They grow on free soil.'" He gave Henson a dollar and arranged for a boat, which carried the slave and his family across the river to Canada.
22 "I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand and danced around, till, in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman. 'He's some crazy fellow,' said a Colonel Warren."
23 "'Oh, no! Don't you know? I'm free!'"