Many have studied abolitionists who risked so much to aid enslaved men and women who were escaping the horrific institution of slavery. White abolitionists commonly referenced are William Lloyd Garrison, Levi Coffin, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott, and others. Fewer African Americans are granted the title of abolitionist; notwithstanding, African Americans William Still, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman are among those who have entered our historical records and modern-day consciousness. However, few have ever heard of Lavina (Vina) Curry, a free Black woman abolitionist in Guilford County, North Carolina (modern-day Greensboro).
The work of scholars, such as historian Dr. Adrienne Israel, is now focusing on free Black communities who worked in concert with White abolitionists. To date, many of these Black abolitionists remain unnamed, unheralded and unrecognized. One woman upon which our abolitionist roots hinge is Lavina Curry, along with her husband Archibald (Arch) Curry. Arch was a free Black man who was required by law to carry freedman’s papers on his person. His wife, Lavina, was a washerwoman at New Garden Boarding School in the 1830s (now Guilford College, a Quaker institution). When Arch died, his papers stayed with Vina. “She decided to loan these to male slaves bearing some resemblance to her late husband, so they could travel north safely.” Levi Coffin, originally from New Garden (now Greensboro, NC), became the esteemed president of the Underground Railroad. He left New Garden in 1826 for Indiana. When enslaved persons would reach him in Indiana, through a courier, Coffin would return the freedom papers to Vina Curry. (By Land and By Sea, by Hiram Hilty, 1993)
This history is further acknowledged by the memoir of Addison Coffin, a cousin to Levi Coffin. He wrote that Vina Curry made the “free papers” of her deceased husband, Archibald Curry, available to fugitive slaves escaping from Guilford County en route to Levi Coffin’s home in Indiana.” According to Addison Coffin’s memoir, “This was done 15 times to my knowledge.” (Addison Coffin and the Underground Railroad, Addison Coffin, 1897)
How did the story of Lavina Curry resurface? In September 2018, President Jane Fernandes and Provost Frank Boyd endorsed Guilford College’s membership in Universities Studying Slavery (USS) to examine our college’s relationship with the institution of slavery. The Guilford College USS working group was later named the Curry-Coffin Commission on Slavery, Race and Recognition. Serving as co-chairs of the Commission are College Archivist of the Quaker Archives, Gwen Gosney Erickson, and Krishauna Hines-Gaither, Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Director of the Intercultural Engagement Center. Our research with the Commission, the research of Sarah Thuesen’s history class, and the scholarship of Dr. Adrienne Israel brought new life to this unsung she-ro, Lavina Curry.
In an attempt to reveal the fullness of our history while celebrating the contributions of Black abolitionists, the Curry-Coffin Commission on Slavery, Race and Recognition will soon erect both a state and campus marker in honor of Vina Curry. The Commission is working in concert with Dr. Sarah Thuesen’s history classes and her students to conduct research on the Curry family, draft the text that will appear on the marker, and work with state agencies to apply for the state marker.
Guilford College will co-host the Spring 2022 conference of the Universities Studying Slavery, along with Wake Forest University. At that time, we will unveil a historical marker to commemorate Lavina Curry’s contributions and her legacy. The markers will represent the beginning of our public acknowledgement of the Curry’s contributions. We hope that this public commemoration will be a launching pad for deeper conversations and action related to Guilford’s race relations. Moving forward, we will examine the legacies of slavery as well as their impact on our campus community today.