The Stephens-White Story

John "Felix" White was an enslaved man in Boone County who escaped to freedom in 1844 through the network of the Underground Railroad. White had been the property of a slaveholding family in the southern part of the county and was sold to notorious slave trader George Washington Brasher, shortly before his escape. Brasher regularly sold slaves "downriver" to Louisiana, and held them in Petersburg awaiting transport south on riverboats. It is believed that White, fearing the harsh conditions existing on the plantations of the Deep South, fled across the river and eventually made his way to Michigan.

White became acquainted with Laura Smith Haviland, an active conductor on the Underground Railroad. Haviland's family had founded an integrated school in Michigan called the Raisin Institute, which taught students practical life skills, such as agricultural cultivation and domestic tasks. John White attended the Raisin Institute and got a job working on a farm near the school. Kentucky slave catchers, including George W. Brasher, travelled to Michigan in pursuit of White and others. Haviland quickly helped get John White to safety in Canada.

White was free, but his wife, Jane and five children remained enslaved in Boone County. They were owned by Benjamin Stephens, who lived near Rabbit Hash. Stephens was known to be Jane's father as well as her slaveholder. White returned to Michigan and asked Haviland to help rescue his family.

Haviland tried to rescue Jane and the children on two different occasions in 1848, though neither resulted in the family even leaving the property. With the help of the Barkshire and Edington families, African American agents of the Underground Railroad in Rising Sun, Indiana, Haviland was able to contact Jane. She learned that two of the children were working at another farm in the county, and wouldn't return for several months, so a later rescue was planned. This ended the first attempt.

When Haviland returned to try again, she learned that there were patrollers on the river looking for counterfeiters, making it too dangerous to rescue the family. An enslaved man by the name of William Allen, who was a friend of John White, had warned her against the attempt. When John White learned of the news, he returned to Boone County to rescue his family.

His attempt was also unsuccessful; Jane and the children were captured, along with Solomon, who was the overseer and enslaved to the Stephens family. Jane and the children were sold, then separated for many years. After Emancipation, Jane, who was remarried and living in Kansas, ran ads in newspapers distributed in African American churches throughout the country, in hopes of finding her children. She was reunited with three of the five children before her death.

John White escaped capture at the river, but was caught soon after by well-known slave catcher Wright Ray, who was an associate of George W. Brasher. Brasher was out of town, and White was clever enough to give a fake name, so Ray was unaware that he was a runaway that had belonged to Brasher. John White was released to a man who was the nephew of Cincinnati abolitionist Levi Coffin, who claimed to be his slave holder.

John White returned to the North, moving between Canada and Michigan. He remarried and had several more children with his second wife. He is buried in Ann Arbor, Michigan.