Laura Smith Haviland
Seeking and Serving the Unfree
Tragically, slavery was very much a part of the American life and conscience in the early 1900s, leaving a heart rending void in the fabric of our culture at the time. Since the basis of slavery was that one person owned another—like you might own your pet cat or dog—many opposed the practice, especially in the Christian churches. These opponents became known as abolitionists because they sought the abolition of the institution of slavery. And as with many social issues, most abolitionists’ opposition was theoretical, not active. However there were a few who confronted the issue itself—to seek and serve the unfree. One of these was Laura Smith Haviland.
Laura was born in December, 1808 in Ontario Canada and her parents were actually recent arrivals from the U.S. Her parents were active in the Society of Friends—known as the Quakers—where her father, a small farmer, was in their ministry and her mother an elder.
Actually the Quakers were among the first to advocate for many progressive causes, such as gender equality and especially slavery. However, most Quakers were not vocal agitators on the subject.
In 1815 the Haviland family returned to the U.S. and settled in a remote area of western New York State. Local schools were few so Laura had to learn on her own, and the inquisitive girl embraced self education by reading everything she could find.
Laura was also enraged when she read of the then illegal slave trade and transferred this rage to the local abuse occasionally endured by her Black neighbors.
In 1825 at age 16 Laura married Charles Haviland Jr. a fellow Quaker and four years later they moved to the community of Raisin, in Michigan Territory, settling a few miles from Laura’s parents’ home.
While coping with life in a pioneer community, Laura and others sympathetic to those opposing slavery formed the first anti-slavery organization in Michigan. Then in 1837 she and Charles formed what one source called a “manual labor school…designed for indigent children”—later known as the Raisin Institute. Laura demonstrated and taught household operation for the girls and her husband instructed the boys in farm work. They insisted that the school was open to every child, regardless of gender or race, becoming the first racially integrated Michigan school.
Eventually they added students and expanded their curriculum, and the Raisin institute, was soon widely recognized. About this time many Quakers did not share their avid interest in anti-slavery causes, stressing a calm response to the subject so the Haviland families, joined the local abolition-minded Wesleyan church.
Then in 1845 an epidemic of a bacterial infective skin disease swept through the area, taking six members of the Haviland family, including Laura’s husband, her parents and one child. Finding herself a widow at age 36 with seven children, a farm and the Raisin Institute to manage Laura tried to cope, but two years later she succumbed to the pressure and closed her school.
Laura had found a place for her anti-slavery interest in what has become known as the “Underground Railroad,” a loosely organized system of safe homes for escaping slaves that derived its name from its similarity to a “railroad” to move passengers to freedom. Either on their own or with local assistance, fugitive slaves traveled to northern states, where sympathetic individuals would hide them briefly in their homes, then arrange for them to move on to the next “station”—or the home of sympathetically minded people further north. The eventual goal was to move these people into Canada and permanent freedom since remaining in the northern states sometimes meant later capture. That’s because the fugitives were often pursued by “slave catchers”—those employed to follow and return them to captivity.
Actually, Laura and her associates faced personal danger. In 1846 after she had foiled slave hunters from Tennessee they later confronted her on a train where they pulled guns and demanded she return their “property.” According to her autobiography, she responded, “Man, I fear neither your weapons nor your threats; they are powerless. 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.” Her opposition led to a $3000 price on her head.
Another case developed when she traveled to Tennessee to rescue children of an escaped slave, but after violent threats from the slave owner she managed to escape without the youngsters. However, he was so angry that over the next few years he continued to pursue her legally in court. Under the 1848 Fugitive Slave Act in effect, he sued Laura and others for “stealing” his slaves and this meant further danger of attacks and also the threat of fines and imprisonment. However, Laura continued as before.
Sometimes Laura traveled to the South to assist the escape of enslaved persons, going “undercover” as it were—one time as a cook, and another time as a “fair skinned free person of color.”
Laura spent the Civil War years touring traveling to distribute supplies, setting up schools and even serving as a nurse in hospitals. She also gave lectures about the cause—illustrated with various slave restraining devises she’d collected during her previous journeys south.
When she lived briefly in Washington, Haviland became a friend to former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth who later described a mutual experience. They were riding a street car, until a passenger questioned if Blacks were allowed to ride. The conductor seized Truth’s arm, telling her to get off, at the time that Laura grabbed the other arm. The conductor addressed Mrs. Haviland: “Does she belong to you?” To which Laura responded, “No, she belongs to humanity.”
At the end of Reconstruction in 1877 after many former slaves had settled in Kansas, they often lived in makeshift crowded and unsanitary camps. They were also subject to attacks by local enemies, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Laura alerted national government officials and also collected needed supplies to take to the refugees. Using her own money, Laura bought 240 acres of local land for refugees to own and farm. The Kansas community of Haviland is named for her.
Laura’s life of service ended with her death in April, 1898 in Michigan and she was buried next to her husband in Adrian. At her funeral, a multi-racial chorus sang the hymns and later her pallbearers were both Black and white.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.