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North Carolina Quakers, Anti-Slavery, and the Underground Railroad: Benjamin Benson

Benjamin Benson


The Trial of Benjamin Benson
(Reference code: NC_M_00199)


Historical Marker Transcription:

The Trial of Benjamin Benson 

Benjamin Benson, a free African-American who lived in Delaware, was kidnapped and sold as a slave to John Thompson of Greensboro. In 1817 Benson filed a suit against Thompson in Guilford County Superior Court to reclaim his freedom. His case was supported by Vestal Coffin, George Swain and Enoch Macy, local Quakers who had learned of his situation. Thompson's response to the lawsuit was to send Benson to Georgia where he was sold to a new owner. When the judge learned of Thompson's action, he ordered Benson's immediate return. In 1820 Benson was declared a free man. It is believed that he was the first African-American in the United States to use the legal system to gain freedom. The support given him by the Quakers was part of their continuing opposition to the institution of slavery.

About Benjamin Benson

Life and Travels of Addison Coffin: Written by Himself (Google eBook) 

by Addison Coffin 

Call Number: QUAKER CT275.C662 A3 C2
Publication Date: Cleveland, Ohio : William G. Hubbard, 1897



My father [Addison Coffin's father] was born near New Garden, Guilford county, N. C., in 1792, and died in 1826 in the house in which he was born, and on his birthday, October 10th. His mother, Elizabeth (Vestal) Collin, was left a widow with four small children, one daughter and three sons, who grew to man and womanhood under many privations common to the lot of the widow and the fatherless of that age of southern civilization. At an early age my father entered the anti-slavery movement, and his ready, natural ability soon brought him to the front. When Benjamin Lundy visited North Carolina in 1816 he was among the first to join the Manumission Society organized by that celebrated man. In 1818 he was the only man who had the courage to attack the then domineering slave power in the South. It came about in this way. A young free negro, named Benjamin Benson, was kidnaped in the State of Delaware, and brought to Greensboro, where he was sold to a very wealthy and influential slave-owner named Thompson. A slave owned by




General Hamilton learned the facts concerning Benjamin Benson, and gave the information to my father, who interviewed Benson, then wrote to Delaware, and got sufficient evidence to get out a writ for Thompson requiring him to produce Benson and show cause why he should not have his freedom. The officer who served the writ gave opportunity for Thompson to conceal Benson, and on the hearing denied ever having such a negro in his possession. The case was dismissed and _that night Benson was run off secretly to Georgia and sold. This notorious outrage on law and justice caused much excitement and intensified the spirit of opposition to slavery.

My father was now joined by I)r. George Swain and Enoch Macy, and determined to push the case to the end. They wrote again to Delaware and enlisted the anti-slavery men there to the extent that the State Legislature made an appropriation of money for expense, and made my father and his two friends legal agents to push the ease, and sent a man to identify Benjamin Benson. In the meantime, the slave of General Hamilton, known as Hamilton's Saul, had been secretly listening and learning all the plans of Thompson and the slave power, which information was invaluable in the case.

When all was ready, another writ was served, in which it was ordered that Benson should be pro-




duoed in open court. This brought things to a crisis. Thompson had to go to Georgia, where the man to whom he had sold the negro made him pay $1600 before he would give him up. At the trial Benson was mixed up with a score of negroes to test the man from Delaware, but he identified him at sight. The evidence was so conclusive that the negro was set at liberty at once, and he returned to his home and corresponded with my father up to the time of his death.

This case naturally placed my father in the front rank of anti-slavery men, and he was an object of hatred among the more violent and vindictive slaveholders. Seemingly, without being conscious of how it came about, he was expected to do all the dangerous work, to take all the responsibility and leadership; others were ready and willing to share the cost, do all the business, fetch and carry, if he would be the leader in the hours of trial.

In my History of Friends in North Carolina I give the origin of the Underground Railroad, and will not repeat it here, excepting to say, that father originated and operated the first of the kind in America. in 1819. His cousin, Levi Coffin, who in after years became famed as an Abolitionist, took his first lessons under my father, and many were the secret conferences they held after night, never meeting in the



same placen the second time, to prevent espionage or betrayal.

A negro named John Dimery was freed by his master in the lower part of the State; he married a freed woman who had been owned by a neighbor. They came up to New Garden for safety, where they lived in peace for several years, and bad seven children. The old master of John died; immediately two of his sons came secretly to New Garden on pretense
of buying stock; they located John Dimery's house, stopped over night at a near neighbor's; sometime after midnight they slipped quietly out, went to the house, called Dimery out and pretended to have been hunting and were lost. No sooner was he out of the house than he was seized and a desperate struggle ensued; the wife, Aunt Sally, ran out, but was knocked down, almost senseless; then Dimery shouted to his oldest daughter to run for Mr. Coffin, my father, which she did like a wild deer. Father had just stepped out to get wood to start a fire; without stopping for coat or hat he ran at full speed, providentially meeting Isaac White, a special friend. He just said, "Come," and they both ran like the wind. The kidnapers had finally overpowered Dimery and taken him to the neighbor's, bound securely. In spite of threats, Dimery told the neighbor that Mr. Coffin would soon be there and begged their protection. The kidnapers



and neighbor were ready to come to blows, when father and Isaac White rushed in; then the scene changed; the kidnapers were told that they would be taken before the nearest magistrate and prosecuted for their crime. This brought them to a standstill, and while they were debating the case, the lady of the house had been quietly untying the rope, and before any one knew it Dimery sprang out and made for the woods; the kidnapers rushed after him, calling a large dog and setting him after the fugitive, but when the dog came near, Dimery clapped his hands and hallooed as though there was game ahead; the dog went tearing into the woods, and the fugitive close after, when they both disappeared. Father and Isaac White now renewed their threats of arrest, which so alarmed the men that they soon mounted their horses and galloped out of the neighborhood and were seer, no more. John Dimery was started on the Underground Railroad that night and soon landed at Richmond, Indiana, where he worked and sent money to his family for their support for two years, and then had them sent to him.

There was more of this kind of business done at that period than in assisting real fugitive slaves. In 1772 the friends of North Carolina freed their slaves, as did many Methodists and other conscientious people. The number amounted to thousands thus lib-




erated, and it was frequently the case that heirs would try to re-enslave those freed people; this constant harassing and kidnaping finally drove thousands of the negroes across the Ohio river into free territory. The mountaineers in Virginia were so used to seeing negroes going westward that it was less dangerous for fugitives to escape that way than through Kentucky. After my father's death many fugitives continued to come to the old home, and my mother would advise and counsel with them as time and opportunity offered, until brother Alfred and I were old enough to take the post of danger our father occupied; but this is anticipating history, and we will go back to earlier days.


U.S. Congressional Record



[Page: H10255]

(Mr. [MEL] WATT asked and was given permission to address the House for 1 minute and to revise and extend his remarks.)

Mr. WATT. Mr. Speaker, today, citizens in my district will commemorate the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the national Underground Railroad. While many people associate the Underground Railroad with the courageous efforts of Harriet Tubman, in actuality the Underground Railroad started in Greensboro, Guilford County, NC, in 1819, 1 year before Harriet Tubman was born.

Founded by Vestal Coffin, a member of the Society of Friends, this slave escape system made it possible, during more than 35 years of operation, for hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to flee from captivity and enslavement. This mysterious transportation system, a primitive system with many routes, was never discovered by the slave owners.

According to `White Water, Colored Water,' a history of Greensboro's African-American community, the Underground Railroad began when Greensboro, founded in 1808, was a village only 11 years old.

A slave named Sol assisted Vestal Coffin in preparing many slaves for their escape. By day, Sol sought out slaves who were interested in escaping or who had been free blacks, kidnaped and forced into slavery. He then fed this information to Coffin. In 1819, John Dimrey became the first passenger on the secret escape route traveling from Greensboro to Richmond, IN.

As John Dimrey was traveling north from Greensboro on the Underground Railroad, another African-American man, Benjamin Benson, became the first slave to successfully go to a local court to obtain his freedom. This was in Greensboro, NC. Many will also remember that Greensboro later became the place of the first sit-in demonstrations which launched years of efforts which resulted in the opening of public accommodations to black people.

The Quakers--as the members of the Society of Friends are called--stood against the institution of slavery through the Manumission Society, also based in Greensboro. One of the Quakers, Levi Coffin--cousin of the founder of the Underground Railroad and also a Greensboro native--became the president of the national Underground Railroad system.

I ask all Americans to join me, Project Homestead and Greensboro city officials today in this special remembrance of Sol, Vestal Coffin, Levi Coffin, John Dimrey and others who originated the historic Underground Railroad.