Underground Railroad in Greensboro, North Carolina Celebrated

HISTORIC TREE- The Underground Railroad Tree in the New Garden Woods, a reminder of the Underground Railroad activity that took place in the area

By Carla Charter

GREENSBORO, N.C.- In Greensboro there was once the New Garden Quaker Settlement, populated by Quakers from Pennsylvania and later from Nantucket.  The Quakers who settled in this community, which began in 1751, were staunchly opposed to slavery.

In 1819, John Dimery, an African American freed by his owner elsewhere in the state,  moved his wife and family into this Quaker settlement for extra protection as freed slaves were known to sometimes be captured and resold into slavery, according to Max Carter, emeritus director of Friends Center and professor of Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

That same year, the sons of his Dimery’s previous owner, who had passed away,  rode to his cabin within the settlement and called out to him, pretending they were hunters who had become lost, Carter said.  When Demrey came out of his cabin the brothers jumped him tying him with ropes hoping to sell him back into slavery.  Hearing the commotion Dimery’s wife came out and was knocked out by the brothers.  When Dimery’s daughter appeared at the door,  he yelled “Run, Get Vestal Coffin.”  Coffin was a Quaker abolitionist who lived in the community. He was a farmer and a committed anti-slavery activist who helped start the North Carolina Manumission Society in 1815, Carter continued.

The daughter soon arrived back with Coffin and his friend Isaac White who detained the brothers and threatened to prosecute them.  Meanwhile a neighbor untied Dimery’s ropes and he sprung into the woods with the brother’s dogs chasing him.  The brothers were spooked by Coffin called off the dogs and rode off. Dimery went back to Coffin’s cabin where Coffin mapped out a route for Dimery to follow to get to a Quaker settlement in Richmond, Indiana, he continued.

It took six weeks for Dimrey to follow the route to Indiana which later became part of the Underground Railroad. This incident was the first Underground activity in Guilford County, possibly even in North Carolina, and Coffin and Dimery were the first known passenger and conductor on the Underground Railroad in the state, Carter continued.

Coffin’s cousin Levi was also involved in Underground Railroad work and was president of the Underground Railroad nationally.  In 1826 Levi and Catharine moved to Indiana from North Carolina and their home became known as the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad. It is estimated that the pair assisted 2,300 fugitives to freedom.

The pair were so well known that Harriet Beecher Stowe used Levi and his wife as the basis for the Quaker family in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Eliza, the main protagonist of the book was based on an actual fugitive who came through Levi Coffin’s home.  Vestal and Levi worked on the Underground Railroad until Vestal died. Levi then continued their abolitionist work.

The 200th anniversary of this first Underground Railroad activity in Greensboro will be commemorated on October 10 on Vestal Coffin’s Birthday. Coffin was born on October 10, 1792 and passed away October 10, 1826, leaving behind his wife, Alethea,  and their four young children on their 170-acre farm.

Among the events of the day will be a talk on The Early Origins of the Underground Railroad: Relations between Africans, Native Americans and Quakers given by Dr. Arwin Smallwood, Chair of the History and Political Science Department at North Carolina A&T State University.

A presentation on the case of Benjamin Benson, a kidnapped “free black” who won his freedom in 1820 in a Greensboro court assisted by Vestal Coffin will be held at the Benjamin Benson marker in Greensboro. This was one of the first cases of an African American using the legal system to gain his freedom.

There will be a walk to the “Underground Railroad Tree” in the New Garden Woods. “Deep in the woods is a 350-year Tulip Poplar tree which is known as the Underground Railroad tree. It was a silent witness to the fugitives who hid and sought refuge in the woods of the Quaker Colony. The Sanctuary tree represents what happened there,” according to Carter.  During the celebration event there will be stories and song by James Shields, director of the Bonnea Scholars Program At Guilford College.

There will also be a tour of the graveyard at New Garden, ending at the graves of Vestal and Alethea Coffin. The tour will be led by Carter.  More information about the days events can be found at the North Carolina Friends Historical Society or by e-mailing Carter at mcarter@guilford.edu

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