A look back at the Underground Railroad in Guilford County

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Some things seem inevitable, in retrospect.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Abolition movement are certainly two of them – how could anyone be against them, it seems from today’s perspective.

But nearly every civilization in history has had some form of slavery and social hierarchy and if you lived in the American South, 200 years ago, opposing slavery was a monumental task.

“It was very hard to convince those who were privileged economically by slavery to give it up,” said Max Carter, a Quaker and retired professor at Guilford College. “It's remarkable that there were those who did. It was dangerous work. The people who were hunting escaped slaves or were seeking to kidnap free blacks and re-enslave them were armed and Quakers were not, typically.”

So they used a sophisticated and clandestine system begun right here in the Triad – blacks and whites together – working to free the enslaved with a system that came to be known as The Underground Railroad.

“You had people who understood what their job was,” said James Shields, the director of Community Learning at Guilford College. “Their main job was to get you to the next spot - not to get you north, my main job was to get you to that next place, which was 20 miles down the road.”

Some of the names have lasted through time, like the Coffins. But even within the Quaker community, they found resistance from people whose names are long forgotten.

“The abolitionists like Vestal Coffin, Levi Coffin and others had to argue with other Quakers about their abolition work. Because other Quakers were opposed to slavery but were unwilling to take those kind of risks or unwilling to break the law,” Carter said. “But Levi Coffin famously said, 'The laws of the land are in conflict with the dictates of humanity and we ignored the law.' Others were unwilling to do that. Levi said it's a sin, it's wrong, it needs to be ended, right now, no matter what the impact. In fact, he only sold free labor goods in his store - went bankrupt twice, because he only sold free labor goods.”

Many of them are buried across the street from Guilford College but their tales not often told, anymore.

“This is our story, this is an American story that we need to tell,” Shields said.

And we will in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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