Carolina Curious: The Quaker Roots Of Greensboro

Carolina Curious: The Quaker Roots Of Greensboro

3:34pm Nov 26, 2019
Guilford College's First College Faculty, 1888. Photo courtesy of Quaker Archives, Guilford College, Greensboro, NC.

This week’s "Carolina Curious" takes us all the way back to the 17th century and a close up look at the Piedmont’s Quaker history. When WFDD listener Dan Reis and his wife moved to Greensboro seven years ago, they were already vaguely aware of a Quaker connection here. Since then, Reis’ "Carolina curiosity" has only grown and wanted to know more.

As WFDD’s David Ford found out, footprints of the Quakers can be found throughout the Triad.

First, Quaker Librarian and College Archivist Gwen Gosney Erickson provides some helpful historical background.

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Guilford College Quaker Librarian and College Archivist Gwen Gosney Erickson studies the birth record of former Guilford County Quaker Dolley Madison. DAVID FORD/WFDD

“‘Quaker’ is actually a nickname,” she says. “Technically the Religious Society of Friends is the name of the religious denomination. But when the Society of Friends were worshipping in 17th century England, individuals seeing them were struck by how they would literally quake or shake — that they were filled by the spirit of God.”

She says they eventually embraced the insulting nickname, but the Church of England never embraced their beliefs, like spiritual equality for men and women, any need for official clergy, and the presence of God existing in every person. All of it ran counter to official doctrine, and — by mid-century, as Quakers were jailed, beaten, and banished — they began fleeing to America.

Their history is captured at the Hege Library on the Guilford College campus in Greensboro, home to the Quaker Archives.

Back in the stacks, Gosney Erickson puts on her white gloves, pulls out a large book of yellowed pages — each is covered in neat cursive writing by members of New Garden Friends Meeting, the oldest Quaker congregation in the Triad area founded in 1754 and still thriving here today. There are hundreds of pages of detailed records.

“And that includes the birth record of someone people may know of, Dolley Madison, the creator of the First Lady kind of mystique,” says Gosney Erickson.

So, a Quaker from Guilford County left her mark on Washington, but what about Greensboro?

“Well, one could go to the name of Greensboro, since Nathaniel Greene was born a Quaker in Rhode Island,” says Gosney Erickson.

It turns out he couldn’t actually remain a Quaker though as he became a general in the military and Quakers are pacifists. But to this day he’s known as the Quaker General of the Revolutionary War, and Greensboro is named after Nathaniel Greene for his leadership during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. 

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New Garden Meetinghouse, 1869. Watercolor by John Collins. Courtesy of Quaker Archives, Guilford College, Greensboro, NC.

Guilford County became home to Quakers from all over — England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts — and along with the Moravians in Winston-Salem, they were among the first European settlers in North Carolina. Gosney Erickson says all that mixing created a rich Quaker culture that has left its mark in profound and lasting ways here in the Piedmont.

“Greensboro has a history of educating women,” she says. “UNC-Greensboro is a state institution but was originally founded as a women’s college. But if you look at the initial faculty and a lot of the women that were involved in the founding of what is now UNCG, a significant number of them were educated at New Garden Boarding School, the predecessor of Guilford College, and were themselves Quakers.”  

So, why this centuries-old emphasis on educating women? Well, one of the key historic tenets of Quakerism is “that of God in every human being.” That means valuing the lives and education of both genders, and to many Guilford County Quakers, all races. In the first half of the 19th century, Quaker anti-slavery activists began petitioning the North Carolina legislature on the immorality of slavery. Then came the Underground Railroad.

“Individual Quakers definitely were allying with local African Americans both enslaved and free to help support that network to freedom — people who lived here in the area that’s now the area where Guilford College is located, where there was that Quaker presence and that convergence of social movement going on with abolitionist activities,” says Gosney Erickson.

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Levi Coffin Marker. Photo courtesy of Quaker Archives, Guilford College, Greensboro, NC.

Quakers are well represented across North Carolina in the state’s official historical marker program, and a number of those markers are here in the Greensboro area. Underground railroad leader Levi Coffin, born and raised in Guilford County, is commemorated right on the Guilford College campus. Gosney Erickson says not far away is a unique historic walking tour through the old-growth forest there including a champion tulip poplar that’s more than 300 years old and known as the Underground Railroad Tree. 

“That serves as a silent witness to what would have happened in those woods 200 years ago,” says Gosney Erickson. “We know that landscape was part of the area where freedom seekers would have obtained assistance from Quakers in this area, as well as members of the freed black community that lived near here.”

That legacy lives on today in places like Warnersville, the first planned African American community in the area named for Pennsylvania Quaker Yardley Warner. He bought the land and made it available to “freedmen” shortly after the Civil War. It’s a fascinating story, but one that’ll have to wait for another edition of Carolina Curious.

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