Levi Coffin was born in North Carolina on October 28, 1798 into a Quaker family who greatly influenced by the teachings of John Woolman a Quaker preacher, who believed slaveholding was not compatible with the Quaker beliefs and advocated emancipation. Growing up in the South, Coffin was frequently exposed to slaves throughout his childhood and sympathized with their condition.
By the age of 15, William was helping his family assist escaping slaves by giving them food and shelter on their farm. In 1821, William became a teacher and opened up a school for slaves to teach them how to read, though it was not successful as slave owners would not permit their slaves to attend. In 1826, he moved to Indiana and over the next 20 years he assisted more than 2,000 enslaved persons escape bondage, so many that his home was known as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad."
Moving to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1847, he operated the Western Free Produce Association, a store that sold only goods produced by free labor, and continued to operate his home as a stop on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War he visited numerous contraband camps and continued to aid slaves in their quest for freedom on the Underground Railroad.
After the war ended, Coffin raised over $100,000 for the Western Freedman's Aid Society to provide food, clothing, money, and other aid for recently freed blacks. With the war over, slavery illegal, and passage of the 15th Amendment, granting African Americans the right to vote, Coffin retired from public life and wrote his memoirs.