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Greensboro Pilgrimage

New Garden Cemetery and Guilford College Woods

written by Joyce Watkins King

About 9:00 on a glorious summer morning, 36 West Raleigh pilgrims and guests gathered in a Guilford College parking lot with water bottles, stools, walking sticks, notebooks and cameras in hand. We crossed New Garden Road and passed a tall hedge, when (for me anyway) it felt like Max Carter, our most knowledgeable and endearing guide, had opened the gate to the “Secret Garden.” Looming before us was a huge swath of verdant green grass dotted with gravestones large and small, very old and more recent, surrounded by 80-plus-foot tall leafy trees. Some of the gravestones dated back to the early 1800s and were covered in moss and lichens, aged by weather over time. Max focused our attention on a handful of the graves, mostly those of the final resting place of the earliest founders of the original Quaker boarding school built on the site. The school was later incorporated into Guilford College, the first co-ed school in the South.

Sidenote: In addition to believing in pacifism, Quakers who founded a community in the 1650s, believed all people are created equal, regardless of skin color, gender, age, or wealth, thus schools were open to all. During the Civil War, the school’s medical services were provided to servicemen from both sides.

Max showed us the side-by-side gravestones of two brothers and their wives, Levi and Vestal Coffin, who were instrumental in the founding of the Underground Railroad, which began in Richmond, VA, then spread to the south and north. The nearby New Garden Forest, 350 plus acres of heavily forested land, just adjacent to the college, was the ideal place for escaped slaves to hide out and start their journeys north to freedom. It is still one of the largest areas of land in the U. S. that has never been logged or plowed for agriculture. Vestal Coffin’s wife Alethea was the first Matron of Guilford College.

Following our visit to the cemetery, we car-pooled about 1.5 miles through the Guildford College campus to the edge of New Garden Forest. After a short hike we came to the location of the second largest tulip poplar tree in North Carolina, about 5 feet in diameter and 150 feet tall. It takes 4-5 people with fully outstretched arms to link their hands and form a complete circle around the trunk. The tree is the sentinel entry point to the Underground Railroad’s southernmost location and a known sanctuary for Indians, slaves, and fugitive confederate soldiers trying to return home. As I shielded my eyes from the sun and looked up to the top of the tree, I couldn’t help noticing its anthropomorphic figure, with outstretched arms, offering entry and refuge to all those who sought the path of freedom.

As a young boy in the 1830s, the story goes that Levi Coffin, son of only son of Prudence and Levi Coffin Sr, fed the wild-roaming pig sows near birthing time by throwing out foraged acorns and seeds in the area of the giant tree where we were sitting. While there he listened to the stories of the fugitive slaves, which confirmed his Quaker, anti-slavery commitment. At the young age of 12 Levi stood up to a well-respected community member, David Caldwell, who was a Princeton-educated Presbyterian Minister and slave owner. When Caldwell decided to send one of his slaves, Eve, and her young baby, to his son’s home in Charlotte, she ran away to the Quaker woods. Young Levi heard about this and with the blessing of the Quaker elders talked Caldwell out of sending Eve and her baby. Some say this was one of the best examples of the Quaker tenet of “speaking truth to power.” Later, when Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine moved to Indiana, their home became the central station of the Underground Railroad.

This really is just a fraction of what we learned from Max about how the Quakers assisted the slaves and many others. I am eager to read more about this remarkable history and hope you might feel compelled to do the same.

Visit to the Beloved Community Center

written by Amy Simes

The middle of our pilgrimage to Greensboro was spent at the Beloved Community Center. The Beloved Community Center was officially founded in 1991 by Rev. Barbara Dua, Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Z. Holler, Pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, and Rev. Nelson N. Johnson, Pastor of Faith Community Church. We met with Rev. Nelson Johnson and Mrs. Joyce Johnson - Co-Executive Directors, Mr. Lewis Brandon – Director of the Grassroots History Project, Ms. Brigette Rasberry – Operations Officer, and Ms. Neah Hubbard – Office Manager. We were fortunate to hear from Rev. and Mrs. Johnson, veteran community organizers in Greensboro. (Mr. Brandon is also a veteran community organizer, but he is a man of few words.)

We watched two videos – one was about the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission Project, modeled after the effort in South Africa. On Nov. 3, 1979, five people were murdered and ten wounded (including Rev. Johnson). Television crews captured the killings on film, but the members of the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan were twice acquitted of any wrongdoing in state and federal courts. Eventually several members of the KKK, Nazis, and the Greensboro Police were found jointly liable for one of the deaths. The second video was about the protest in May 1969 connected to a student body election at Dudley High School that led to tear gas, bullets, and tanks being fired at a student dorm at NC A&T University. Before it was over, 650 members of the National Guard had been sent to the campus. Most of us watching the videos and listening to Rev. and Mrs. Johnson had never heard of these events.

We also learned about the current efforts underway to establish a statewide North Carolina Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission process. The areas of focus are: The areas of focus are: Financial security and wealth creation, Inclusive voter access and genuine democracy, Adequate housing, Police accountability and judicial equity, Community safety, Quality healthcare (including mental health), Climate justice and ecological sustainability, and Quality, relevant education. Different areas of the state may have different emphases within these focus areas or others may emerge in the process. There will be a four-day summit at Bennett College in Greensboro Oct. 25-28 to foster conversations and imagine solutions for this work.

I’m grateful that members of our community got to hear from Rev. and Mrs. Johnson. It was my exposure to them twenty years ago that planted the seeds of my passion for social justice.

International Civil Rights Center and Museum

written by Catherine Meynardie

We ended our time in Greensboro with a two-hour guided tour of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. According to its website, the museum is comprised of “35,000 square feet of exhibit space with original artifacts, interactive exhibits, and powerful narratives.” The galleries and exhibitions are indeed powerful and they chronicle a wide time span in a compelling way - including early in the United States' history, the era of Jim Crow segregation and more recent times. Unsurprisingly, much of what is displayed and described is disturbing. Below are just a few examples:

  • The term “Cheaper By The Dozen” was first used to describe the sale of slaves sold in groups of 12 as they sometimes were when the individual people were not considered to be of high quality (e.g. older women, people with disabilities, etc.).

  • The "Hall of Shame” gallery contains searing images and narratives of such brutality that both its entrance door and the museum’s website contain warnings about its content.

  • An entire wall in one space is covered with names and photos of people who were arrested and put in jail with minimal (if any) evidence of wrongdoing.

  • Several artifacts are displayed that were used to maintain Jim Crow segregation such as a water fountain, signs and a two-sided Coca-Cola vending machine. One side of this machine was for white customers while the other side was for people of color. For this particular type of machine, a wall was always constructed so that the people on each side of it could not see one another. The cost of a Coke on the “Colored” side was twice as expensive as one on the white side, a fact that the people on the “Colored” side were unaware of since they were not allowed to ever be on the white side of the machine.

Through a short film and a large gallery, the history is presented of the four A&T college students who orchestrated and carried out nonviolent sit-ins at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter. The original counter, along with stools, signage, cooking appliances and more are on display along with the front pages of newspapers covering this story. The four students began these sit-ins in February of 1960 and continued them for several months; other college students (including some from Bennett College) joined their efforts. Before these students left Greensboro to go home for the summer at the end of spring semester, they organized high school students to continue with the sit-ins. In July of that same year, the lunch counter was integrated. These sit-ins helped to fuel and inspire many other such efforts in many other cities and states. The museum’s website reports, “[These students’] non-violent direct action challenged America to make good on its promises of equality and civic inclusion enunciated in the Constitution.

The Civil Rights Center and Museum documents many historical events that were unjust and horrible. And, yet, it also presents history of people who are inspirational-individuals who fought incredibly hard and persistently for social justice. Their brilliance, tenacity of spirit, bravery, vision of social justice and determination is remarkable, as are the gains they made. To learn more:


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