Alumna brings legends of Guilford’s tree

Minnette Coleman ‘73 signs attendee Beth Kieser’s copy of “The Tree: A Journey to Freedom” on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.//Photo by Julia Martins de Sa/The Guilfordian

“Head up, chest out, that’s how they all look. Just like they won the world instead of it owning them,” read Minnette Coleman during a signing of her new book, “The Tree: A Journey to Freedom,” on Nov. 3. Coleman graduated from Guilford College in 1973. She was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from the College.

Coleman’s novel tells the story of a young slave named Epsie who journeys toward freedom. It features a famous tree near Guilford’s campus, which was known as a haven for escaped slaves.

“There was (this) tree in (the New Garden Friends Cemetery) that was blown up in … the 1950’s when Eleanor Roosevelt came to speak,” said Coleman. “Somebody didn’t like the fact that she was speaking on campus, so they put dynamite in the tree.”

Even though the novel features real places such as the tree, it is a work of historical fiction.

“I wanted to create a legend … so no matter if anything in this book is true or not, it’s a legend,” said Coleman.

For the reading, which was hosted by the Multicultural Education Department, Coleman chose a section from her novel where the main character, Epsie, learns about freedom from a fellow slave named Gail.

“You have no particular way to say, ‘Oh that’s freedom,’ but if you look at people who are proud of who they are, who hold their head up … I was inspired by that,” Coleman said.

When writing her book, Coleman spent much of her time researching the realities of slavery.

“It’s sad to say, (but) this is a horrible thing to write about,” said Coleman. “But it was fun (finding) this research and looking it up because that meant other people were doing what I was doing.”

Krishauna Hines-Gaither, the director of MED, expressed excitement about Coleman’s presentation and novel.

“She had just made her mark on history in so many ways here and the fact that she was researching (Guilford’s) broader history,” Hines-Gaither said. “It was a powerful story that I felt the entire community needed to hear.”

Hines-Gaither wasn’t the only attendee who was excited about the content of Coleman’s novel. Liz Cook, an associate archivist of the Friends Historical Collection, expressed similar sentiments.

“I loved hearing her read,” said Cook. “I have a copy of the book already, and I wish I could take her home with me and hear (her read) the whole thing. It’s wonderful to hear her voice as you hear the dialogue in the book.”

Despite competing events during family and alumni weekend, the signing was filled with alumni, former and current staff. This included Coleman’s first-year English literature professor.

“To have my literature teacher buy four books was really cool,” Coleman said. “I really enjoyed the family way we kind of share things here, so that’s one of the reasons I came back.

“This is where it all started … this is where I got more history … That was my reason for coming back.”

Coleman is also the author of “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” and “No Death by Unknown Hands.” “The Tree: A Journey to Freedom” was published in May 2017 by Coleman. All of her books were available for sale at the signing.

“There are a lot of different stories that need to be told,” said Coleman. “There’s more than one story about the Holocaust, and there’s more than one story about slavery, but I think it’s important because it came from (Guilford).

“It comes from a place people can see and relate to.”