The 1720s were a particularly important time for the United States, in terms of births. Roger Sherman was born in 1721, Samuel Adams the next year in 1722. John Morton, Lewis Morris, Benjamin Harrison. Signers of the Declaration of Independence, important American statesmen. But somewhere tucked into those years, a little sapling was beginning to grow. More than one hundred and ten years before Guilford College would be founded by the Religious Society of Friends, the now iconic champion tulip poplar was merely a little sprout. And it would go on to have quite the eventful adolescence. From the Revolutionary War to the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, the tulip poplar and the entirety of the Guilford College Woods have stood as silent witnesses throughout history and played an important role in these events, as well as throughout time, as a place of retreat and escape.
If you’ve never seen one, a tulip poplar seedling is quite an interesting thing to lay eyes on. It has three little green bumps at its center, like a pod of peas without the pod. Little four-pronged leaves stick out from the pod-less pea stack like arms being waved wildly or thrown open for a hug, and a host of tan roots shoots out from the bottom, calling to mind fringed bell-bottom pants. Just the look of the seedling is joyful, standing in stark contrast to the dark history witnessed by Guilford College’s champion tulip poplar. It creates a feeling much like a human life: starting out vibrant with a great zeal for life, dancing our way through childhood, only to find ourselves trudging through a violently somber young adulthood. Such an experience was shared by one Levi Coffin, whose joyful childhood was also marred by the horrific system of enslavement in the American South and North Carolina in particular, as he witnessed a group of enslaved men chained to a cart heading down the road. Levi’s father spoke to the men, who told him they had been separated from their wives and children. Levi’s life as an abolitionist took root there, just as the tulip poplar took root in what was known as the New Garden Woods years before. I imagine Levi returning to his childhood home in Greensboro, wondering deeply and silently (as Quakers are often wont to do) “[h]ow terribly we should feel if father were taken away from us” (Coffin 1880). But all was not lost for Levi, as he had the ability like many people before him to slip into the safety of the woods and escape the burdens of life. Growing up just north of the now Guilford College Woods, with his Meetinghouse on the other side of them, he described them as a “refuge”. Certainly, that is an accurate name for them in the historical sense – but also in the personal and spiritual sense.
To enslaved people on the Underground Railroad and Quakers escaping mandatory service in the Civil War, the Guilford College Woods circa 1819-1852 represented a very physical, tangible freedom. A freedom from either dehumanizing bondage and forced labor or from the horrors of unethical war. The tulip poplar is frequently described as a “silent witness” to these events, standing still and quiet as the forces of freedom and slavery, fear and hope, death and rebirth fought a bloody war tooth and nail. It is quite something to close your eyes and try to imagine the world from the perspective of the wood’s sacred champion. Imagine the gait of feet, both sneaking and perhaps running. The southern wind against the bark, carrying smell after smell to the noses of slave hounds, until a trail led across water and the scent was lost. The sound of strangled frustration, cries of jubilation, wailing of dashed hope and lost freedom.