The book “Underground Angel” is about the work of Laura Smith Haviland, who, although born in Canada, considered Michigan to be her home state. Her work as an abolitionist, educator and humanitarian prior to, during and in the aftermath of the Civil War took her to locations throughout the Midwest and the South.
Through a series of coincidences — or perhaps events happening because they were meant to happen — Sheryl White, the author of “Underground Angel,” will be a guest at a “high tea” and a lecturer in Haviland’s adopted hometown of Adrian, Mich., during early September and will also visit cities where Haviland worked a century and a half ago.
Currently an associate pastor of lay ministry at First United Methodist Church in Pratt, where she has worked the past nine years, White was hired as a professor at Barclay College in Haviland in 1995. While the Society of Friends, or Quakers, who founded the college, have a long history of gender equality, it was unusual to have a woman professor in the areas of the Bible and theology and White often felt challenged by colleagues and students.
A friend asked if she had seen a picture of Mrs. Haviland hanging in the main building at Barclay. White had seen a picture of a modest, unassuming woman, and began to wonder what was so special about her that the founders, a group of Quakers who migrated from Indiana, would name their town for her.
Her curiosity led her to Haviland’s autobiography, “A Woman’s Life-Work,” last edited in 1889, and a “hard read,” according to White.
While completing her doctorate of ministry degree at Anderson University School of Theology (an online school located in Anderson, Ind.) White chose to do a project about the town of Haviland and its heritage. When she defended her doctoral thesis, her advisor told her, “you should write a book about this woman’s life.”
Laura Smith Haviland was a birthright Quaker who operated a station on the Underground Railroad, a system of safe houses that helped fugitive slaves reach freedom in Canada. She established Michigan’s first school open to children of all races, and she went undercover in the South to learn about conditions there. She worked as a nurse during the Civil War and afterwards traveled to various locations, trying to establish new institutions that would put newly freed slaves on a solid financial footing.
“She was so instrumental in providing humanitarian relief for freed slaves starting their lives anew in Kansas,” White noted.
After completing her doctorate, White let the material set for several years, then in 2009, she began rereading Haviland’s biography and other materials, began writing in 2010 and published “Underground Angel” in 2013.
The book is fiction, but as true to history as possible. Because Haviland’s autobiography was not copyrighted, White was able to use the woman’s own words about her life.
“I tried to build stories to make it reader-friendly,” White said, explaining for example that it is unknown if Haviland and Sojurner Truth, an African American abolitionist and activist for women’s rights were friends, as she describes in her book.
“They worked together, they traveled together,” White said. “If they weren’t friends then, they are in heaven.”
The book is published by Xulon Press, a “print-on-demand” company, and has sold very well in the Pratt area. A woman from Haviland purchased a copy and sent it to her sister in Adrian, Mich., where it became the topic for a women’s book club.
While researching Haviland’s later activities, White found a reference to “A Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier,” by P.C. Zick, the great-granddaughter of Harmon Camburn, who was a student and then a teacher at Haviland’s Raisin Academy in Adrian. White and Zick corresponded through Facebook.
As a result, White has been invited to Adrian to attend a tea and, with Zick, to speak about their books. White also plans to visit Detroit, Mich., where Haviland did much of her work. She will also visit Toledo, Ohio, which had a strong abolitionist group and Cincinnati, which has an Underground Railroad museum.
Interestingly, while born a Quaker, Haviland joined with the Episcopal Methodists (who have become the United Methodists), but returned to the Quaker church before she died. White was raised a Methodist, attended a Church of God seminary, worked for a Friends school and a Friends church for four years, but has also “come home to her roots,” as a United Methodist.