As a group of UNC Greensboro students, faculty, and staff enter the Guilford Forest one beautiful winter afternoon, one of the group’s faculty guides, Dr. Omar Ali, turns to everyone and requests that they remain quiet as they walk. Participants are encouraged to listen to their footsteps on the ground and pay close attention to their surroundings, the wind in the trees, and changes in the landscape as they move. The group is on a journey to see a great tree deep in the forest, one of the oldest trees in North Carolina…
In a special pop-up exhibition in downtown Greensboro, UNCG students, faculty, and staff reflect on the Great Tree and Guilford Forest as silent witnesses to the intertwined lives of those who have lived in or near the forest and those who have passed through it.
The show, titled “The Underground Railroad Tree: Explorations through Art, History, and Science,” blurs traditional disciplinary boundaries of study.
The work displayed and performed in this exhibition is conducted at UNCG within the context of two classes: an honors history and methodology seminar co-taught by Dr. Omar Ali and Dr. Nadja Cech, and an organic chemistry course taught by Dr. Kimberly Petersen. Cech explains that through collaborative research and creative activity, their courses and approach to teaching “highlight the ways in which history, science, art, music, and dance are synergistic, complementary, and inextricable.”
Ali highlights the historical significance of the Underground Railroad Tree as being “a marker of the southern terminus of the Underground Railroad, a living monument to the struggles of over 2,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans who found their way to freedom.” At just over 300 years old and one of the largest trees in the forest, it is also a natural and scientific wonder to behold.
This project allowed students a chance to research, reflect, and make work that takes them out of the classroom and the lab and into nature to directly experience the Great Tree in its natural and historical setting. The students also visited related sites such as the Greensboro Historical Museum and the Quaker Archives at Guilford College to learn more about the people, events, and natural history related to the site.
The show will be open April 5-7 from 1 to 9 p.m. in the UNCG Pop Up Shop at 300 S. Elm St. in Greensboro. A special reception will be held during the downtown Greensboro “First Friday” event on April 5, between 6 and 9 p.m., with readings and live music from students and faculty starting at 7 p.m.
All events are free and open to the public. Visit mcsquared.uncg.edu/underground-railroad-tree for more information.
Story and photography by Matt Bryant