History and Quaker Roots

Explore Guilford's Origins

Guilford College was founded by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1837 as a co-educational boarding school — originally for Quakers but accepting non-Quaker students by 1841. While still maintaining a commitment to Quaker values, the institution evolved into one serving young people of every religious affiliation and those with none at all.

In the 1880s, New Garden Boarding School transitioned into a four-year liberal arts college and rechartered as Guilford College in 1888. It is the oldest coeducational college in the South, with male and female faculty and graduating both men and women in the first class.

Network to Freedom


Guilford’s campus is notable for its history as a school and as land where local African Americans worked with New Garden Quakers, including famed Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, to implement Underground Railroad activities. Enslaved Africans escaped to the Guilford College Woods, where they were supported in their flight to freedom by local Quakers.

Guilford is one of the few college campuses listed by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a National Historic District and is part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Other Historical Moments

  • Remained open during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65)
  • Accepted Japanese-American students during World War II (1940s)
  • Racially integrated to include students of African descent in 1962
  • Hosted influential Quaker conferences, notably the World Conference in 1967 and the World Gathering of Young Friends in 1985

While Guilford is independent of formal ownership by any Quaker body, its Quaker heritage still influences its customs, administration and curriculum, and our Core Values are derived from Quaker testimonies.

Let Your Light Shine

Campus Ministry Coordinator Frank Massey urges students to let their light shine at Guilford's annual Passing of the Light tradition.

Underground Railroad Tours

Learn more about Guilford's history by exploring the sustainable trail that leads to what is known as the Underground Railroad Tree, a 300-year-old tulip poplar tree that bore silent witness to the struggle for freedom.

To schedule a tour, email undergroundrr@guilford.edu or call 336.316.2442.

Quaker Testimony

Quakers believe in the importance of living one’s convictions out in the world. As George Fox, a founder of the Quaker tradition, once said, “Be patterns, be examples ... let your lives preach….” In order to do this, Quakers emphasize the direct connection to God in their lives, believe in the spiritual equality of women and men, acknowledge the “light of God” in all people, practice nonviolence and practice decision-making based on the unity of the community.

Some Quaker-inspired practices you can experience at Guilford today:

  • Moments of silence before gatherings
  • Decision-making by consensus at all levels of the College
  • Many smaller seminars and classes that meet in the round
  • Opportunities for interfaith worship and spiritual community
  • First-name basis among students, faculty and staff on campus
  • Commitment to being an anti-racist, multicultural institution
  • Academic offerings directly influenced by Quaker principles