2020 Florence Kidder Memorial Scholarship - First Place Essay by Lucas Thomae


Turning my car onto Levi Coffin Drive, I found myself transported from the urban, bustling city of Greensboro to a quaint college community. Red brick paths wind across a grassy campus square, creating a web of beautiful colonial-style buildings. I’m visiting Guilford College, one of the many colleges and universities which Greensboro boasts. However, Guilford is not just another four-year university; it is a beacon of freedom, a symbol of fighting for what’s right, and a testament to the importance of historical preservation.

Greensboro is known for its revolutionary past. We are probably most famous for the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, which was essential in the lead up to the decisive American victory at Yorktown. Lesser known, however, is a small group of Quakers in Greensboro who led a revolution of their own, fighting for the principles of religious freedom, the right to an education, and racial equality in the heart of the volatile American South. Their story begins in a small community for Quakers called New Garden, where Levi Coffin was born in 1789 on the land which is now Guilford College’s campus. (Levi) As a young man, Coffin became a fierce abolitionist, offering refuge to escaped slaves in the 200-acre Guilford Woods as they made the journey North towards freedom. Coffin is estimated to have helped 2000-3000 slaves, and through his actions he earned himself the moniker “President of the Underground Railroad”. (Underground)

Coffin was also a staunch supporter of education, building a Quaker Sunday school and a school for young slaves, before it was forced to close by disapproving slaveowners. (Levi) These small schools set a precedent for education within New Garden, likely inspiring the establishment of the New Garden Boarding School in 1837. While we take it for granted now, education was a rare commodity at that time in the South, and most schools that did exist were exclusive to Christian men. The boarding school, which became Guilford College in 1888, was radical in its dedication to admit students regardless of gender or beliefs, making it the oldest coeducational institution in the South. (Stoesen) Since its inception, Guilford has proudly operated under the Quaker values of equality and pacifism on which it had been built, even when that meant betraying the status quo. The college remained open during the Civil War and was one of the leading voices against conscription into the Confederate Army. During the war, Guilford’s woods once again became a place of refuge, this time for Quaker men and other objectors to the war. The school consistently showed itself to be a voice for underrepresented groups, welcoming in Japanese-American students in World War II and students of African descent during the civil rights era. (History)

Guilford College is now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is considered a U.S. Historic District. It’s part of the National Park Service’s “Network to Freedom”, which recognizes historic places important to the Underground Railroad. These distinctions have helped to attract more national recognition and more students from across the globe, and in 2017, Governor Roy Cooper declared, “Guilford College is in a period of renaissance” (Cooper) My favorite part of my visit was actually unplanned, a trail through the woods to the Underground Railroad Tree, a 300 year-old tulip poplar which Guilford describes as, “a silent witness to the Underground Railroad activities” Deciding that I had to see it, I made the trek through the same woods in which fugitive slaves had made their journeys. When I reached the tree, I was awed by its beauty. A sign marking the poplar asked, What can we learn from our shared histories and life stories? Do we seek to create justice and places of refuge in our own communities and in the world at large? Those questions opened my eyes to the importance of Guilford College. Historical preservation is not just about keeping brick and mortar buildings standing, the impact lies in the preservation of stories: the stories of the fight for freedom, for education, for equality, for acceptance. It’s these stories on which we build the foundations for a better society, just as a group of stubborn Quakers did in my city, 200 years ago.

Works Cited
Cooper, Roy. Guilford College Month, North Carolina: 2017. Print.
“History and Quaker Roots.” Guilford College, www.guilford.edu/who-we-are/friends-center/history.
“Levi Coffin, 1789-1877”, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, University of North Carolina Press, 1979, www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/bio.html.
Stoesen, Alexander R., “Guilford College.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 2006, www.ncpedia.org/guilford-college.
“Underground Railroad in Guilford College Woods.” Guilford College, updated Aug 5 2019, www.library.guilford.edu/undergroundrr.