It is truly a tragedy that the name Laura Smith Haviland is not as recognizable as the names of some of her contemporaries, such as Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth. Instead of chapters on her achievements, Haviland’s story is relegated to footnotes in history texts, if it is included at all, yet rarely do we see an example of a person who was able to accomplish so much for the betterment of society despite the obstacles placed in her path.
Haviland was born in Canada in 1808 to the Reverend Daniel Smith and Sene Blancher and was raised as a Quaker. At the age of 16, she married fellow Quaker Charles Haviland. It was after her marriage that Haviland joined the Logan Female Anti-Slavery Society and, the more she became involved in the issue of slavery, the more she realized that the issue was causing a division in the Quaker church, and the Havilands ultimately left the church.
The Havilands relocated from Canada to Adrian, Michigan, to be closer to Laura’s parents who had moved there several years prior. There, in a tiny log cabin, the Havilands raised their eight children. Yet Laura remained devoted to the anti-slavery cause while raising her family. She helped to found the first anti-slavery organization and the first Underground Railroad station in the state of Michigan. Both Haviland and her husband risked imprisonment for helping the escaped slaves travel to freedom in Canada as it was a prohibited as part of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Laura was also concerned about the plight of children, particularly orphans. She became a teacher and worked tirelessly to educate the orphans in her community. In 1836, she founded the Raisin Institute, a school committed to not only instruct parentless children about the basics such as reading and writing, but skills that could help them transition out of poverty.
Haviland insisted that the Raisin Institute open its doors to all orphans, no matter their race, gender, or belief. This mission statement of the Raisin Institute was quite revolutionary for its time; a time when several states banned the education of African Americans. The Raisin Institute was innovative in that it was the first school in Michigan that welcomed black students and it demonstrated that racially integrated schools could work.
Later, Haviland recalled a vivid dream she had during this part of her life in which a bloodied, shackled slave turned up on her doorstep. She interpreted this as a sign that more escaped slaves needed her help. Following her husband’s death, Haviland re-dedicated her live to the Underground Railroad. Her first task was preventing a contingency of Southern slave owners from recapturing a family of escaped slaves and transporting them back to the South.
It was not uncommon for Haviland to travel with the escaped slaves, educating them while they escaped to freedom in Canada, Michigan or Ohio. It was vitally important, she believed, for the former slaves to learn to read so they would not be taken advantage of by future white employers who would force them to sign contracts that they didn’t understand.
When the Civil War started, the Underground Railroad ended, but Haviland’s commitment to service did not. She started a church and school in Windsor, Ontario, where she continued to educate the underprivileged. When the war was over, Haviland acquired recommendations from the government to go to Mississippi to work with the wounded and homeless. She fought for and secured the removal of a leader at a military hospital by exposing his cruelty and patient neglect. Haviland was also key in negotiating the release of 3,000 Union soldiers who were being held in a prison camp on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.
Later, Haviland moved to Kansas to aid relocated refugees from the Civil War. During this time, she was hired by the Freedman’s Aid Bureau. This is the first time that she received pay for the work that she did. She eventually sold the Raisin Institute in Michigan and travelled to Washington DC to work on behalf of the freed slaved living there. She found many to be living in such deplorable conditions that she secured the financial assistance to be able to move them further north where they could get an education and learn a marketable trade.
When she learned that the Klu Klux Klan had a strong foothold in Kansas and was terrorizing the former slaves living there, she journeyed back to the state and founded a school and ministry. The town of Haviland, Kansas, was named after her and honored her work there. Even in an advanced age, Laura Smith Haviland remained a tireless advocate. She became involved in both the temperance movement and the women’s suffrage movement.
Haviland died in 1898, at the age of ninety, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was laid to rest next to her husband in Adrian, Michigan. In a symbolic display commemorating her life’s work, her funeral was integrated, with a choir comprised of white and black singers and both white and African American pall bearers carrying her casket.
Written for Sheroes of History by Karen Bend
Find out more…
Check out this great interactive timeline of Laura’s life.
You can read about Laura Smith Haviland’s life in her own words in A Woman’s Life – Work – Labours & Experiences which is made of extracts from her journals (and is free to download.)