Levi Coffin was born on a factory near New Garden in Guilford County, North Carolina. In 1821, he wanted to start a school for slaves, but slaveowners refused to allow them to attend. In 1826, he moved to Fountain City, Indiana (then called Newport) with his wife Catherine. In 1847, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he opened a store which sold goods made by freed slaves. These goods were marketed especially for anti-slavery consumers, as they were made and produced by freedmen. Coffin also visited Britain to raise funds and in 1867 he was a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris.
Coffin helped slaves escape to freedom in the Underground Railroad, and hid slaves in his house during the 21 years that he and his wife Catharine (also a Quaker and an abolitionist) lived in Newport. After the end of the American Civil War, Coffin raised over $100,000 dollars for the Western Freedman's Aid Society, a group that he helped to lead.
He is interred at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.
Coffin's home in Fountain City, Indiana is a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public for tours. Visitors can see the "hidey hole that he had built into an upstairs wall and a wagon with a false bottom that demonstrates how runaway slaves were sometimes moved. His home was also named one of the United States' "Top 25 Historic Sites by the History Channel.
Coffin has been referred to as the "President of the Underground Railroad," allegedly from a slavecatcher who said, "There's an underground railroad going on here, and Levi's the president of it." Coffin claimed to have been involved in the escape of about 3000 slaves. Questioned about why he aided slaves, Coffin said "The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book." Another time he simply said, "I thought it was always safe to do right."