GREENSBORO — The fading grave marker might simply list birth and death dates for a Dr. George Howland Swain.
But within the covers of “Tales from the New Garden Friends Graveyard” is a more compelling portrait of Swain, a young Guilford County abolitionist in the early 1800s South who helped a slave successfully use the legal system for the first time in this country to gain his freedom.
Swain (1768-1852) was one of three members of the New Garden Quaker abolitionist community who took up the case of Benjamin Benson, a free black man who in 1817 was kidnapped in Delaware and sold to Greensboro businessman John Thompson. After Swain, Vestal Coffin and Enoch Macy took up his case, Thompson sold Benson to a Georgia slave owner. Swain and the others later convinced a judge to order Benson back to Guilford County, where he later argued his own case in Superior Court and won.
A historical marker stands outside the International Civil Rights Center & Museum downtown.
“Of course, some of it had to do with the stance Quakers had taken in N.C. by the late 1770s: Any participation in slavery was inconsistent with Christian testimony,” the book’s co-author and retired Guilford College professor Max Carter said of the involvement of the three local Quakers. “I think some of it might have had to do with youthful idealism.”
Swain’s is one of the book’s 46 biographical sketches with photos and maps of historical sites. The book includes stories that have long been part of Carter’s Halloween lantern walking tour of the historic New Garden Friends Meeting Cemetery. Some of those profiled helped slaves plot their escape. Some offered a “safe house” along the Underground Railroad for slaves who needed a respite or food as they made their way north. Others, such as former college presidents, had interesting tales of their own.
Many of the last names — including Doak, Boren and Hinshaw — remain familiar.
“On the tours, people would always ask, ‘Is this written down anywhere?’ ” said Carter, the former director of the Friends Center at Guilford College.
The first shipment of the $10 book sold out at Scuppernong Books and has since been replenished. It is also available at the New Garden Friends Meeting office.
“People come in looking for it,” said Scuppernong store manager Shannon Jones. “It’s definitely had a lot of interest.”
Carter has a fierce knowledge of everything Quaker — even when the topic is the announcement earlier this month of the closing of the American Hebrew Academy, an international Jewish boarding school in Greensboro.
“Something that has intrigued me about AHA’s location is that it sits on the site of the former farm of Vestal and Alethea Coffin, the first conductors on the Underground Railroad in N.C. It’s where they met with John Dimrey in 1819 to plot his escape from kidnappers,” Carter said.
The Coffins (Vestal, 1792-1826 and Alethea, 1798-1891) are buried in the New Garden cemetery.
Retirement gave Carter the time he would need to write it all down. So he’d go over to the cemetery, sit at each of the graves — some of which were put there before headstones were allowed — and jot down what came to him. It was mostly what he picked up over the years from his own research and conversations with families.
Then he started handing out his notes at the end of his tours throughout the year.
Gertrude Beal, a researcher at Guilford College, soon got involved. She is also the author of “The Underground Railroad in Guilford County.”
“Gertrude got her hands on a copy and said, ‘Several people are missing,’ ” Carter said with a laugh.
“One of the people I wanted to include was a distant relative of mine,” Beal, seated on the other side of the table, said, also with a laugh. Her relative, David Sampson (1845-1916), was a blind preacher who founded the Winston-Salem Friends Meeting and served as its first pastor.
Beal then contributed essays. She also has a longer history with the New Garden Friends Meeting — her family worshiped there as far back as her grandparents — and knew of people buried in the adjoining cemetery whose histories Carter didn’t know.
“I thought I had done enough to get a free book,” Beal said. Carter thought her contribution was more significant — so he added her name to the cover.
The co-authors, members of the N.C. Friends Historical Society, said they hope the book will spur others to do the same for other cemeteries.
Among the rows of graves at New Garden are non-Quakers, including Vance Havner, the North Carolina-born “boy preacher” who grew up to become a popular Christian author, and a Jewish couple who escaped Nazi Germany with the help of Quakers. The wife, Gertrude Victorius (1896-1995), known as “Dr. Vickie,” later chaired Guilford College’s economics department.
The graveyard includes the remains of two unknown Union soldiers who escaped from a Confederate prison and made their way to the New Garden community where, in spite of attention by Quaker doctors, they died, according to the book.
Elsewhere in the cemetery are the mass graves of more than 125 British and American soldiers who died in the Revolutionary War Battle of New Garden in 1781.
Graves are also marked for Richard Benjamin “Rick” Ferrell (1905-1995) and his brother Wesley C. “Wes” Ferrell (1908-1976), considered two of the best professional ballplayers of their era. Rick Ferrell was later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, according to Carter and Beal’s book.
The cremated remains of Greensboro-born Quaker Mary Nicholson (1905-1943) are buried there. A Royal Air Force auxiliary pilot, Nicholson crashed in England while ferrying a plane from the warehouse to the airport. On the same row are the cremated remains of four members of the Knight family, who all died a few months later when a Navy pilot ferrying a plane from the factory to the airport crashed into their Greensboro farmhouse. The father saw the plane go down from the field. A daughter was able to jump out of a window.
Carter had previously interviewed some of the people whose stories he tells in the book.
Former Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co. executive Seth Macon (1919-2016) spent time with Carter at the various historical sites connected to his family. When Macon was a boy, his father leased the fields surrounding their northern Randolph County homestead after fall harvests to wealthy people from the North, like the powerful banker J.P. Morgan, who would bring friends in their personal Pullman railroad cars to hunt pheasant, quail and rabbits, according to the book.
“We were fascinated by the famous people who hunted on our land,” Macon is quotedas saying, “but it meant that father wouldn’t allow us to hunt, lest the much-needed extra income would be threatened by a lack of game!”
Carter also found surprises when he started research for the book. He had been giving tours for nearly 15 years when he discovered Swain’s grave, which had a toppled marker. Not all Friends, for example, went as far as Swain and the others did regarding Benson.
“They were all in their late teens, early 20s,” Carter said. “But much of it had to do with the rightness of their actions. It was simply the right thing to do, and they had already committed themselves to anti-slavery action with such groups as the Manumission Society.
“I also think they were inspired by the Quakers who went before them: Anthony Benezet, John Woolman, and Benjamin Lay — who took radical action in the early and mid-1700s to oppose slavery and the degradation of fellow humans.”
Crater later discovered one of his favorites, poet Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), who was a significant figure in local and national history and once taught at UNCG. The non-Quaker who served in the military and wrote the poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” had asked to be buried among Quakers.
The book also recounts the story of Mary Mendenhall Hobbs (1852-1930), one of the most important women of her age and the wife of the first president of Guilford College, who petitioned the legislature and lobbied people of influence for educational opportunities for females, with the resulting Woman’s College — now UNCG — opening in 1891.
Carter and Beal know some might question why others weren’t included. They agree that some of the most captivating stories might still be out there.
“We could have done 46 more,” Beal said. “Maybe that’s for the next one.”