Good Trouble: Pastor Sheryl White shares more of her personal story and culture shock in Haviland

Sheryl White
Pratt Tribune
Sheryl White

Last week I shared my personal journey in discovering God’s direction in my life. Little did I know that taking a pioneer adventure to teach at Barclay college in a small town in Haviland, would set the direction of the rest of my life!  Haviland, named after an abolitionist, Underground Railroad Operator, and humanitarian- Laura Smith Haviland, was a complete culture shock for me, but this trouble I felt led to by the grace of God was an eye-opening experience.

Following the U Haul on Highway #54 in my car that Dad had named Ronda the Honda, I was greeted by several wonderful people who helped me unload the truck.  Once they were gone, my excitement melted into major culture shock. There were no Walmarts, Costcos, Starbucks, drive through fast food windows, one hour dry cleaning or debit card kiosks, anything of the sort nearby - I was in shock.   There was a small corner grocery on the highway that carried bread and milk, and a Willie Burger had the infamous Willie hamburger – but it was a drive to get anything I was accustomed to in Oklahoma City.  I could feel my emotions shutting down. I locked myself in my bedroom for three days.  Thankfully, my parents stayed with me, helping me settle in. They kept trying to woo me out to meet people and get acquainted- as they knew if I could make a friend- I would be fine. Heidi, the new college librarian, came by to meet me several times and to her dismay, my Mom would always say- “she’s just not quite ready yet. But, she’ll come out soon.” That was the last thing I wanted to do! Actually, I wanted to jump in Ronda the Honda and fly back to the big city… Yet, I knew that was not possible.

Taking a deep breath and bound by a sense of determination, I set out to meet Heidi- the librarian, the people of Haviland and Barclay College. Never again did I feel that depression or sense of loss! The excitement had begun!  One of my first experiences was a tour of the Quaker Room- filled with historical collections from the Evangelical Friends, and my first history lesson was when I asked about a picture of a bonnet clad little lady in the center of the display. I was told “This was Laura Haviland. She is the town’s namesake. The Quaker forefathers gave their school and town the name of Haviland because of Mrs. Haviland’s courageous work with the Underground Railroad and her role in the state of Kansas as a humanitarian and a nurse. 

I was fascinated by this woman's story and couldn't help wonder, why had no one taken it upon themselves to write her story so that each generation would benefit from her passion, determination, and faith?  I felt compelled, even obligated, to discover just exactly what and who this Laura Haviland was, what she did, and exactly what made her life so purposeful and compelling.

Laura Haviland was a tiny little lady whose heart had to have been greater than her entire body. At 4’9” she stood tall for her convictions of human dignity and respect to all. She had a grand challenge, living in the 19th century American pro-slavery era, during the Civil War, and the post-war reconstruction era. Yet, she took on the role of being a slave herself to the cause of freeing those caught in the bondage of slavery.

Born in Canada, raised in NY, in 1829 Charles and Laura Haviland with two small boys arrived on the frontier of Michigan’s Raisin River. They settled on the hunting grounds of the renowned Indian Chief, Tecumseh, and struggled to homestead a quarter of land alongside their respective families in a Quaker settlement. Living in their covered wagon for several months, Laura grappled with depression as she continued to bear children.  Her faith ultimately conquered her fears and she met Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, a prolific abolitionist poet, whose lifelong influence on Laura sets the course for Good Trouble in her future work.

Elizabeth and Laura created the Logan County Anti-Slavery Society together to fight the hopelessness of slavery. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Chandler died in 1834 at the very, young age of 27 leaving Laura to carry on this work alongside her family. Thankfully, Chandler’s poetry continued to be the clarion call for abolitionists for years to come. In 1839 the Haviland’s next step was to create the first multi-ethnic school in Michigan on the Haviland’s property along the Raisin River. There is a marker to commemorate the land where the Raisin Institute operated and served many black and white students with quality teachers from Oberlin College for 20 years. In 1845 a plague of Erysipelas brought great sorrow into the Raisin Township along with the Haviland home, as five of her closest family members perished - her mother, father, sister, husband and baby daughter.

As a result of these losses, Laura became determined to follow her calling to help those families who were separated because of the chains of slavery. As both a Quaker and a Methodist, Laura tirelessly aided slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, hiding them in her home and coordinating 27 other stops in the Raisin River area. Laura also led many slaves along the Underground Railroad network through secret passages from her home through Ohio, Michigan, and across the Detroit River into Canada.

For several decades Laura carried a $3000 bounty on her head “Wanted Dead or Alive” by John & Thomas Chester Tennessee slaveholders for her assistance with Eliza Hamilton, an ex-slave following Haviland’s encounter with them in Toledo, Ohio and on the train in Sylvania where she calmly stared down the point of their gun. Through all her years of traveling through the South, the bounty remained. Yet, Laura walked free through the crowds of slave holders in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee.

During the Civil War, Laura trudged her way alongside the Union Army’s war effort .She literally joined the Army providing food and clothing for the slave families as they entered freedom under the care of the Union soldiers. Her favorite moment was when a new family would come into the camp. She would welcome them in her Quaker dialect: “Thou art free!” Then proceed to feed, clothe, and care for each one.

Laura Haviland’s passion of justice guided her to pursue freedom for 3,000 Union soldiers who suffered in the Ship Island/Dry Tortugas prisons of Louisiana at the hand of a rebel, Judge Atocha.  She continued to work tirelessly after the war to provide much needed relief for the Exodusters, 60,000 refugees pouring into the state of Kansas from 1879-1881. She worked alongside Sojourner Truth and John Brown’s half-brother –J.R. Brown while in Kansas. In Washington DC Laura received her marching papers from General Oliver Otis Howard – the esteemed General who had charge over the Freedman’s Bureau and for whom Howard University was named as well as General Edwin Stanton, the renowned Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln. Yet Laura’s continued signature saying was “Thine for the Oppressed.” And next to the life size statue and memorial located in her hometown of Adrian, Michigan is a water fountain that has inscribed on it, “…I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.” Mt. 25:35

Laura lived to the ripe age of 89 years. She is one of the unsung heroines of  Civil War history. One whose story deserves and needs to be shared to our current generation.  Her story is one that speaks to our condition today. She was willing to take a stand for Good Trouble.

Are we willing to take a stand for Good Trouble?