A look at the Underground Railroad Tree in the Guilford Woods

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Take a stroll through the Guilford Woods with James Shields and you might find some amazing things.

“What you would have found here would’ve been pine -- pine tree thickets,” says Shields, of what the area would have looked like 150 or more years ago.

But it’s not the pine trees that are of real interest here.

“This tulip poplar tree is over 300 years old,” says Shields, as he points out one large tree near a viewing stand. “We call this the Underground Railroad Tree. We bring people to this spot because we understand that this tree was a witness to the work that happened here. We believe to be the southernmost terminus of the Underground Railroad.”

The Quakers who moved to the area around Guilford College had a strong strain of abolition in them and few more than a farmer and merchant named Levi Coffin.

“Levi Coffin saw one of these coffles coming through as he was working with his father – he was 7 years old – and he asked one of them when they stopped to give them water, ‘What’s going on with you guys? Why is this happening to you?’ And one of the enslaved Africans said, ‘Well, we’ve been taken away from our families,’" says Shields. “And so, Levi Coffin thought, ‘What would happen if father was taken away from us?’ And so that was the thing that encouraged him – it had such an impact on him – that he vowed to work against slavery for the rest of his life, which he did.”

“He was able, at a very young age, to recognize the humanity and these folks who were literally being shipped as if they were cattle,” says Tiffany Johnson, a Ph.D. student at Duke University who is designing a curriculum for use in the Guilford County Schools pertaining to the Underground Railroad.

“When I was a kid, I would learn, like, things you learn about slavery, ‘Oh, they weren’t paid for their labor, they weren’t paid for their work,’ and all that was true but it is just like the surface level as opposed to the great amount of violence that they experienced every single day, the great pains that went into making them feel that they weren’t human,” says Johnson.

It’s difficult to tell the stories of specific, enslaved people who came through the railroad because of a combination of the way they were treated by their owners who didn’t provide those things that would give them a lasting history as well as the individuals, themselves, who needed to stay as anonymous as possible, as they fled to freedom.

But the people at Guilford emphasize that this is a story that we should all care about, because it is the story of who we are.

“It’s not about shame or blame but it is about recognizing the impact,” says Shields, who is the director of The Bonner Center for Community Service and Learning at Guilford College. “This is our story, this is an American story that we need to tell.”