“No man who has not been in slavery knows the real curse of it. If any man thinks slavery a proper thing, let him go and be abused as I was for years in North Carolina, much of the time in agony from irons and whips and paddles, and I think he would be tired of it, too.”
John Little was a long way from the South when he told his story. He spoke these words to an abolitionist writer from the safety of his Ontario homestead, 10 years after his 1845 escape from enslavement in Guilford County. He spoke of horrors endured and the spirits of men and women broken. He recounted fleeing, finally, in the dead of night, and finding refuge at the bottom of a woodland creek bed.
“I was hunted like a wolf in the mountains, all the way to Canada,” he said. “Friend or foe was my constant question, though I found some safety in the company of free blacks who seemed to know the way north ... I shall never have made it to Windsor had it not been for the people of the New Garden Woods.”
Nearly two centuries later, the New Garden Woods still stand. The forest has been squeezed by the suburbs of Greensboro, so that only a few acres survive between the multi-lane roads and housing developments. The land is now called the Guilford College Woods, after the modern school it surrounds.
But history lives in the soil, and the creekbed that gave shelter to John Little still runs with water on rainy days.
In the decades before the Civil War, the Guilford County area was a hotbed of quiet rebellion. A high concentration of Quaker abolitionists and free Black communities made it a sort of Grand Central Station for the state’s Underground Railroad, referring to the nationwide system of both white and Black Americans that helped people escape slavery in the South.
Guilford County's role in the Underground Railroad became the subject of some attention in August when developers purchased a historic house in High Point, believed to have been a “station” along the legendary road to freedom, with plans to demolish the structure and replace it with a strip mall.
The Greensboro Preservation Society and the High Point Historic Preservation Commission took the matter to court, and possible demolition has been halted for at least one year as hearings continue.
The news has revived discussion of the Underground Railroad’s rich history in North Carolina, and local historians are calling attention to the network as primarily a Black enterprise, aided and assisted by Quakers and other white abolitionists sympathetic to the cause.
“North Carolina, and particularly Guilford County, were exceptional in the overarching story of the Underground Railroad,” says Max Carter, a former professor of religious history at Guilford College. “You saw a level of activity and activism here that would have been pretty much unheard of this far south.”
The Quakers are often credited as a driving force behind the Underground Railroad, although they were only one part of a collaborative effort. Carter says there were already small communities of free African Americans living in the New Garden Woods before the Quakers arrived.
“These were people who had bought their freedom, or escaped slavery prior to the existence of the Underground Railroad and somehow or another evaded recapture,” Carter said.
Census records indicate that the New Garden Woods was home to 71 free Blacks in the year 1820, although historians warn that records from this era notoriously undercounted people of African descent.
Adrienne Israel, a former Guilford College history professor, estimates that the community had grown to several hundred people during the Underground Railroad era, which is generally considered to have started in 1819 and ended with the abolition of slavery in 1865.
“It’s a common misconception that everyone who passed through on the Underground Railroad was fleeing North for freedom,” Israel says. “Many enslaved people who escaped did so to reunite with family members, or even as a form of economic leverage, of systematic rebellion."
Israel says that running away for a time created a work shortage for slaveholders, almost like a strike. When enslaved people returned to their captors, there was severe punishment, but sometimes it would give them a small amount of negotiation power, where as a combined ‘workforce,’ enslaved people could push for better conditions.
She says that the communities of free Blacks in North Carolina were often experienced in hiding enslaved people for short periods of time, aiding in these protests against working conditions.
“It was Black people who knew how to do things like get falsified papers, or how to doctor someone else’s papers to appear as if they were your own,” she says.
White Underground Railroad activists were reliable for hiding and transporting people long distances. But for many, the perilous journey north was simply not worth the risk.
“There were many instances of people coming south, from Virginia, if you can believe it,” she says. “Because some North Carolina counties, such as Guilford, just didn’t care all that much about the state laws.”
An early spirit of lawlessness was part of what made the state so active in the Underground Railroad. There was more leeway for people to bypass persecution, so sites like the New Garden Woods could exist without attracting much outside attention.
Hundreds of Underground Railroad sites were located in northern border states such as Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois. A few dozen clustered in Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland.
North Carolina only has two historic sites: The Guilford College Woods, and the Great Dismal Swamp in the east, where escaped slaves formed massive hidden communities in the thick bogs.
Israel points to cases of white women marrying free or sometimes even enslaved Black men and having the marriages recorded in the Census. It isn’t clear why some counties ignored the laws against interracial marriage and Black land ownership, but it’s possible that the significant presence of Quakers in local government might have played a role.
“Marriages like these weren’t common by any means,” she says, “but it’s amazing to see something so plainly illegal recorded during those times. You certainly don’t see that in the Deep South or in the border states.”
The history of rebellion and resistance runs deep in the New Garden Woods, and Carter says it can be traced back to what historians say might be the earliest instance of Underground Railroad activity in the country.
In 1819, a former slave named John Demery had moved his family into the New Garden community in hopes that the free Blacks who lived there would protect him from kidnappers who refused to acknowledge he had bought his freedom.
“There were kidnappers who came riding into the New Garden community one winter night in 1819 and grabbed him, tied him up with ropes and were ready to haul him off,” Carter says. “That’s when a local Quaker abolitionist named Vestal Coffin happened to pass by, and threatened to sue the kidnappers for violating the rights of a free man with the papers to prove it. He helped Demery to another abolitionist house in Virginia, in what would become the root of the Underground Railroad route out of North Carolina.”
That night, Coffin became the first conductor, and Demery the first passenger, in a system that would allow thousands of North Carolinian slaves to escape bondage.
“People seem to forget, in all the excitement around Coffin, that Demery had already been on a kind of escape route of his own,” Carter says. “Without the protection of the Black community in New Garden, he would have been captured a long time before.”
Although the role of the free Black communities in this complex system would go unrecognized for decades, historians such as Israel and Carter are attempting to rectify this by focusing their research on the Black agents who made the Underground Railroad possible.
Carter finds value in recognizing the Underground Railroad for what it was: the largest interracial civil disobedience movement in America prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
“That’s a big deal for the South,” he says. “Not white people rescuing slaves, but rather a collaborative effort to allow Black people in the South to have some agency in their own lives.”
At UNC Media Hub, students are handpicked from various concentrations in the UNC School of Media and Journalism to work together to find, produce and market stories with state, regional and at times, national appeal.
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