The Underground Railroad in Ann Arbor

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1998,
December 1998

Author: Grace Shackman

In the years before the Civil War, a handful of local abolitionists helped fugitive slaves make their way to freedom in Canada.

A few days since we had the rare pleasure, in connection with many of our friends in this place, of bestowing our hospitalities upon six of our brethren, who tarried with us some sixteen hours to refresh themselves, on their journey to a land of freedom.
--Signal of Liberty, May 12, 1841

The Signal of Liberty was the weekly newspaper of the Anti-Slavery Party of Michigan. "This place" was Ann Arbor, where editor Guy Beckley produced the paper from an office on Broadway. The Signal of Liberty was one of a series of Michigan papers that in the years before the Civil War called for the abolition of slavery in the United States. On May 12, 1841, it also provided a rare glimpse into Ann Arborites' practical efforts on behalf of escaped slaves: an article by Beckley and Theodore Foster recording an escape on the Underground Railroad.

An issue of the Signal of Liberty

An issue of the Signal of Liberty, Ann Arbor's abolitionist newspaper.

"Believing as we do that it is morally wrong to continue our fellow beings in involuntary servitude, it is with the utmost pleasure that we aid and assist them in their flight from southern kidnappers," Beckley and Foster wrote. They described the fugitives as "from twenty-one to thirty years of age--in good health and spirits and apparently much delighted with the prospect of a new home, where the sound of the whip and clanking of chains will no longer grate upon their ears and mangle and gall their limbs."

According to a follow-up story on May 19, the escaped slaves successfully completed the final leg of their journey to freedom in Canada. "We take great pleasure in announcing to our readers that they have all landed, as we intended they should, safe on British soil," Beckley and Foster wrote. Today's Canada was still a group of British possessions then, and slavery had been abolished in all British territories eight years earlier, in 1833. In Michigan, slavery was illegal, but slaveholders still had the right to apprehend escapees; in what is now Ontario, however, the attorney general had ruled that any person on Canadian soil was automatically free.

That promise made Canada the destination of choice for blacks who escaped slavery in the South. The Underground Railroad was a network of sympathetic northerners who helped the fugitives on their way once they reached the free states. There are several stories about the origin of the Underground Railroad's name, but all point to situations in which slave hunters had been hot on the trail of fugitives, only to have the prey disappear as completely as if they had gone underground. Extending the metaphor, the escapees were referred to as "passengers" or sometimes "baggage," while the helpers along the way were "conductors" and the stopping points "stations."

Susan Hussey, the daughter of Battle Creek conductor Erastus Hussey, explained in a 1912 interview, "Passengers over the Underground Railroad were of one class--fugitive slaves. They traveled in one direction--toward Canada. There was no demand for return trip tickets."

Two of the railroad's "lines" crossed in Ann Arbor, and from the Signal of Liberty article and other sources we know that fugitives passed through here on their way to Canada. But beyond that, there is much we do not know and probably never will.

Of the millions of slaves held in the southern states, only a tiny fraction escaped to freedom. There is no record of how many reached Canada; the generally accepted figure is about 40,000. Yet this comparative handful of people played a critical role in bringing the tensions between North and South to a head. It was one thing for northerners to know in an abstract way that southerners kept slaves. It was quite another to be compelled by federal law to send fellow human beings back into servitude.

"Worse than horse thieves"

A very early act of the U.S. Congress, in 1793, set down procedures for identifying escaped slaves and returning them to their “owners". As the abolitionist movement gained strength in the North, a number of states passed laws intended to hinder enforcement of the federal "fugitive slave" law. Nonetheless, helping a slave escape remained a federal crime until 1864.

Presumably for that reason, Beckley and Foster were vague about where the "six brethren" stayed and exactly who assisted them. Had the helpers been caught, they would have faced fines or jail sentences. The fugitives would have been returned to slavery in the South, where they would probably have been severely beaten in a warning to other slaves.

Beckley and Foster also knew that their neighbors in Ann Arbor were divided over abolition. An Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1836, and some religious groups, particularly Quakers and Wesleyan Methodists, were devoted to the cause. Ann Arbor's First Congregational Church was founded in 1847 by former members of First Presbyterian, who broke away in part because they wanted to take a stronger stand against slavery. But there was also a significant number who were not supporters of the cause.

"Our neighbors accuse us of being 'worse than horse thieves,' because we have given to the colored man a helping hand in his perilous journey," Beckley and Foster wrote. "We are also held up as transgressors of the law and having no regard for the civil authority."

As late as 1861, a speech by Parker Pillsbury, a noted abolitionist, was broken up by a mob. Speaking at a church at 410 North State Street (still standing, the building is now a private residence), Pillsbury had to escape out a back window, followed by his audience. The attack so unnerved other area churches that most of them closed their doors to another anti-slavery speaker, Wendell Phillips, when he came to town later that year. (The Congregationalists agreed to let him speak, but only after a special vote of the trustees.)

Despite those mixed feelings, no record has been found that Ann Arbor residents ever returned a fugitive slave. Slaves were in more danger from their former owners, and from bounty hunters, who sought to collect large rewards for their capture. The situation worsened after 1850, when a new Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It swept away all due process for blacks accused of being runaway slaves, increased penalties for helping escapees, and made it a crime for local law enforcers not to return slaves.

Even free blacks, of whom there were 231 in Washtenaw County in 1850, were not safe from the slave hunters. Laura Haviland, an abolitionist from Adrian, wrote about one such case in her 1881 memoir, A Woman's Life. In the 1840s, Haviland writes, she helped a fugitive couple named Elsie and William Hamilton. The Hamiltons left Adrian after their former owner appeared and tried to recapture them, moving to several other places, including "a farm near Ypsilanti for a few years." According to Haviland, the Hamiltons had left Ypsilanti by 1850, but their former owner, believing they were still there, sent his son north to capture them. The son didn't find the Hamiltons, but he did find a family of free blacks, the David Gordons, who came close to the description he had of the Hamilton family. Claiming the Gordons were the Hamiltons, the slave owner's son demanded their arrest. Antislavery activists helped the Gordons confirm their freedom.

Paths to freedom

Most of the fugitives who passed through Michigan came from states directly to the south. (Slaves escaping from the more easterly southern states could go through Pennsylvania and New York, or on a ship along the coast.) "The fugitives came from various localities in the slave states, but most of those who passed on this line were from Kentucky, some were from Missouri and occasionally from the far south," reminisced Nathan Thomas, the conductor from Schoolcraft, south of Kalamazoo, in a letter he wrote in 1882. In another 1841 article, Foster and Beckley mention a fugitive "from the lead mines of Missouri."

The line Thomas was referring to went east and west across the state, roughly along the route of today's 1-94. Fugitives usually came north from Quaker settlements in Indiana to Cassopolis, near Niles, where there was another Quaker settlement. They then traveled east through Battle Creek, Jackson, and Ann Arbor. A north-south route came from Toledo (where James Ashley, founder of the Ann Arbor Railroad, was an active member) to Adrian, an important hub where Haviland and a group of fellow Quakers ran a school, the Raisin Institute, for students of all colors. Refugees traveled from Adrian to Clinton and thence through Saline to Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. From Washtenaw County, fugitives went on to Detroit, where they would cross the Detroit River at night in rowboats. Later, when the Detroit River was too closely watched, the route shifted northward to cross the St. Clair River.

By the time the fugitives hooked up with the Underground Railroad, they would have done the hardest part by themselves: getting out of the South. "Their travel with some rare exceptions was entirely by night and generally on foot until they passed from the slave to the free state," wrote Thomas. "[They] generally received friendly aid to only a limited extent from persons residing in the slave states. But success depended mainly upon their own efforts. They obtained food at night from the Negro quarters during their passage through the south."

Once fugitives arrived in free states, help was easier to get, although they still had to avoid bounty hunters. "They did not bring much property with them; and their clothing was generally barely sufficient to cover them from suffering. The most destitute cases were relieved by their friends after their arrival in the free states," Thomas recalled. Stations were at intervals that could be covered on foot in one night, usually every fifteen or sixteen miles. There conductors could hide the refugees or arrange for others to do so, feed them, and see to their passage to the next station.

Slaves had been escaping during all of their captivity, but the number rose after the War of 1812, when returning soldiers spread the word about how close Canada was. According to Thomas, the line he worked on did not help its first fugitive until 1836. "The second [fugitive] in the fall of 1838 came from the far south through the Quaker settlements in Indiana," Thomas wrote. "He spent the winter with old father Gillet [Amasa Gillet of Sharon Township] in Washtenaw Co. and went to Canada the following spring. Others followed and the underground railroad was gradually established through the state." According to Thomas the line had no overall president, but the management was entrusted to one person in each area. He went on to list them, including Guy Beckley in Ann Arbor.

Erastus Hussey of Battle Creek, interviewed in 1885, explained that he was recruited as a conductor in 1840. He named the other major conductors on his line, including those in Washtenaw: "At Dexter we had Samuel W. Dexter and his sons. At Scio was a prominent man, Theodore Foster, father of Seymour Foster of Lansing. At Ann Arbor was Guy Beckley, editor of the Signal of Liberty, the organ of the Liberty party [an antislavery party that ran candidates in 1840 and 1844], who published the paper in connection with Theodore Foster. At Geddes, was John Geddes, after whom the town was named and who built a large flouring mill there."

Photograph of Samuel Dexter's mansion

Among the places slaves might have hid is Samuel Dexter’s mansion just outside the village of that name.

Turning to secondary sources, we can add more names to the list of participants. Starting in 1892, Wilbur Siebert, a professor of history at Ohio State, interviewed as many survivors of the Underground Railroad as he could find. His 1898 book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, includes a list of stationmasters by county. For Washtenaw he lists, besides those already mentioned, Moses Bartlett, Ira Camp, Joseph Fowler, Jotham Goodell, Harwood, John Lowy (probably the afore¬mentioned John Lowry), and Ray. Chapman's 1881 History of Washtenaw County adds more: Asher Aray, Richard Glasier, James Morwick, Sylvester Noble, Russell Preston, and Eber White. Research by Carol Mull, underground railroad historian, has revealed that Rray” and “Asher Aray” were the same person.

Twentieth-century sources in newspapers, articles, and oral traditions include still more names and places, but many of these are not verified--and people's very fascination with the railroad is largely to blame. Its history combines the drama of life-and-death pursuit with reassuring images of interracial cooperation and white resistance to slavery. Because the idea of the Underground Railroad is so compelling, many stories have been told about it that appear to rest on little more than imaginative speculation.

History and myth

In Ann Arbor's one-time black neighborhood north of Kerrytown, it's common to hear that the Brewery Apartments at the corner of North Fifth Avenue and Summit Street were a stop on the Underground Railroad. Twenty-five years ago, there was even an unsuccessful campaign to locate a museum there. Yet, no nineteenth-century evidence links the building to the railroad. The story appears to have arisen when neighbors noted the cellars extending from the building in the direction of the Michigan Central tracks, and speculated that they might have been dug to smuggle fleeing slaves to and from passing trains. Though escaped slaves occasionally traveled by train, the extensive cellars were built for a much more mundane purpose: storing beer.

There are many similar stories, in which a family tradition or a physical quirk in a building is cited as evidence of participation in the Underground Railroad. Most are probably groundless. When it comes to the Underground Railway, "unfortunately it seems very clear that there's a lot more mythical belief than reality," EMU historian Mark Higbee told the Ann Arbor News in 1996.

"The Underground Railroad is the sort of thing that in the 1880s and 1890s people liked to say they were involved in, or their parents were involved," adds another historian, John Quist. "It's just hard to find contemporary verification and there's a lot of embellishment going on."

The Underground Railroad did exist. Clearly, escaped slaves passed through Washtenaw County, and some were helped by people here. However, it is impossible to go much farther with definite details of when they came, who they were, where they went, how many there were, or where they ended up. Reconstructing the local Underground Railroad is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when some pieces are missing and the remaining pieces can be put together in several different ways.

In evaluating the historical evidence, first-person accounts written at the time are assumed to be the most accurate source of information. Unfortunately, because of the railroad's clandestine nature, few records were kept. In rare cases, conductors kept notes and hid them, but none have been found in Washtenaw County except for some references in the Signal of Liberty, which are intentionally obscure.

Next in value are accounts written by participants after the fact, including those of Hussey, Thomas, and Haviland. Written many years after the events described, these tales may have been embellished in retelling, but there's nothing to suggest that they were made up out of whole cloth. It adds credibility that the three memoirs do not contradict one another.

Last in the order of reliability are stories passed on by word of mouth and deductions based on physical evidence. But while such stories in themselves prove nothing, they should not automatically be assumed false, either. Like Bible stories used to prompt archaeological digs, they can help direct research in useful ways, even if the original tale is not confirmed.

With specifics so cloudy, trying to assess the size of the Underground Railroad locally is largely guesswork. No nineteenth-century source tried to estimate how many fugitives were helped in Washtenaw County. The nearest number comes from Erastus Hussey, who claims in his memoir to have helped about 1,000 fugitives who reached Battle Creek.

Some of the people Hussey assisted presumably stayed in the free black communities of mid-Michigan. Most, however, would have continued east through Washtenaw County on their way to Canada. Since an unknown additional number arrived by the southern route, it seems reasonable to take 1,000 as a working figure for Washtenaw County as well.

The movement was at its peak from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s. Dividing the 1,000 figure evenly over that twenty-year period suggests that an average of fifty escaped slaves a year may have passed through Ann Arbor with the aid of the Underground Railroad. But who helped them, and where did they stay?

Conductors on the railway

He was considered by many to be at least a very eccentric character, but as history has shown since, it was the entire American nation that was more eccentric than good, old John Lowry.
—Judge Noah Cheever. describing a Saline farmer active in the Underground Railroad

After the Civil War, many people wanted to claim connections with the Underground Railroad. When the railroad was active, however, only individuals with strong convictions and considerable courage were prepared to aid escaped slaves in defiance of both social convention and federal law. So it's wise to view the lists of local participants compiled after the fact by Siebert and the county history with some caution. Whether from boasting, forgetfulness, or confusion, some names on the lists may be inaccurate. At a minimum, though, they provide a picture of the people who were believed in the late nineteenth century to have been part of the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Charles Lindquist, director of the Lenawee County Museum, has done a lot of research on his county's role in the Underground Railroad. He suggests the best strategy to identify participants is to "find corroborating evidence--if they lived in places supposedly involved, if they were Quakers, if they subscribed to the Signal of Liberty, if they were active in the Anti-Slavery Society.

"It was definitely illegal, so they were very secretive," Lindquist adds. "It was impossible for there to be just one place [for fugitives to stay in each town]. They'd have to have different places, not a pattern, or they'd get caught." Lindquist also notes that it would have been easier to hide in the country than in town.

The list below is an educated guess about the local participants in the two Underground Railroad lines that passed through Washtenaw County, compiled through use of the Siebert and county history lists and Lindquist's rules of thumb.

The East-West Route

Amasa Gillet: When fugitives entered Washtenaw County from the west, Gillet's farm in southern Sharon Township may have been their first stopping point. Nathan says that Gillet sheltered the second person to pass down this line of the railroad. The 1881 county history calls him "an anti-slavery man" and concurs that "his house was known as a station on the 'Underground rail way.'" Gillet was active in the Anti-Slavery Society and was an important member of the local Methodist church.

Samuel Dexter: The founder and namesake of Dexter village is identified as a conductor by Erastus Hussey. Local Quakers enjoyed the irony that the Dexters could entertain visitors on the porch of their southern-style mansion while hiding fugitives inside. The Dexter house, known as Gordon Hall, still stands on Dexter-Pinckney Road just outside the village.

Theodore Foster: Foster's antislavery work is well documented. A schoolmaster and store owner in the hamlet of Scio, where Zeeb Road crosses the Huron River, Foster was an active member of the Anti-Slavery Society, was editor with Guy Beckley of the Signal of Liberty, and was named as a conductor by Hussey. In the 1950s. Foster's grandson, also named Theodore, set down a story he had heard from his father, Seymour, about a game of hide-and-seek when Seymour was a boy. "Some youngsters ran into the basement and attempted to tip over an oversize barrel or hogshead," Foster recounted. "Upon doing so, they were much surprised and frightened to discover a colored man squatting there. The frightened children ran to their mother with tales of their discovery and Mr. Foster's children became aware of the meaning of their father's night rides and calls by strangers at the back door. They often heard someone knock at the door after dark and their father would hitch up the horse and be gone most of the night." The Foster home is no longer there.

Eber White: A farmer and one of the founders of Ann Arbor's First Methodist Church, White lived on what was then the western edge of the city. According to the county history, "in slavery days [he] was a prime mover in the underground railroad, and many a slave after reaching Canada has thanked God for the help given him by Eber White and his trustworthy friends." White's house at 405 Eberwhite (on the corner of Liberty) has been replaced by a modem house; the land he farmed is now the neighborhood around Eberwhite School.

Sylvester Noble: The county history says that Noble was a member of the Underground Railroad, as does his obituary, which states that "during the days of slavery his sympathies were strongly engaged on the side of the oppressed and his house was frequently made a station on the underground railroad." His home at 220 West Huron is no longer standing.

James Morwick: "During slavery days he was a prime mover in the famous Underground Railroad," according to the county history. An architect, Morwick lived at 604 East Washington, in a house that is now a student rental.

Robert Glazier: Glazier (sometimes spelled Glasier) "was considered one of the best 'conductors' on the route," according to the county history. "He has assisted in passing many a slave into Canada where they would be safe from their cruel master. His 'route' lay from Ann Arbor [east] to Farmington and on one occasion he made a trip to Adrian with William Lloyd Garrison." Supporting evidence is that Glazier was a member of the Michigan Anti-Slavery Society and a devout Quaker. Glazier's house, which began as a log cabin, still stands at 3175 Glazier Way.

John Geddes: Hussey names Geddes as a conductor. His role was challenged almost as soon as Hussey's 1885 interview appeared, however, when an Ypsilanti newspaper article asserted that Geddes "never had anything to do with it [the Underground Railroad]." Historian Quist, whose U-M doctoral dissertation looked at antislavery efforts in Washtenaw County, found no record that Geddes was an active abolitionist.

Besides Hussey’s mention, the main other evidence is that Francis Monaghan, who worked for Geddes as a farmhand and bought the property in 1885, passed on to his descendants stories he heard from Geddes about his involvement in the Underground Railroad. But in recent years, both Geddes’ letters and diary have come to light and people who have read them say they contain no references to the underground railroad or abolitionism or slavery or even radical politics.

Photograph of the Huron Block on Broadway

Guy Beckley published the Signal of Liberty above his brother Josiah’s store in the Huron Block on Broadway.

Guy Beckley: Beckley published the Signal of Liberty from an office above the store of his brother, Josiah Beckely, on Broadway, across the street from the Anson Brown Building on Broadway (which today houses the St. Vincent de Paul store). His home, just a few blocks away at 1425 Pontiac Trail, is the Ann Arbor structure most identified with the antislavery cause; it's where school buses stop on historical field trips. A specific spot for hiding fugitives has never been found in his house, although a back part has been torn down. It's possible that because Beckley was so publicly identified with the Underground Railroad, fugitives were hidden elsewhere if a danger was perceived. An ordained minister, Beckley moved to Ann Arbor in 1839, remaining active in the abolitionist cause until his death in 1847.

Josiah Beckley: A farmer and brick maker, he was supposed to have played a less active role in the anti-slavery movement than his brother, helping mostly with funding. His two Ann Arbor houses are strong possibilities for Underground Railroad sites:

* 1317 Pontiac: Former owner Fran Wright says her deed research established that Josiah Beckley bought the land in 1835 and probably built the house the next year. Present owner Jack Kenny says that there is a hiding place at the back of a downstairs closet big enough for three or four people. Jerry Cantor, who grew up on the north side, said that when he was a boy he was told that fugitive slaves hid in the barn on this property.

* 1709 Pontiac: Former owner Deborah Oakley says that her deed research established that Josiah Beckley bought the land in 1827, the year he came to Ann Arbor, and built the house sometime between 1831 and 1843. Josiah probably built the house in the late 1830s, moving there from 1317 Pontiac. We know he resided there when he died in 1843. Present owner Martha Wallace says there is a false wall in the basement "made with brick the same generation as the house--old and crumbly" that may have concealed a hiding place for fugitive slaves.

The Southern Route

Prince Bennett of Augusta Township is not mentioned in any of the nineteenth-century accounts of the Underground Railroad, but a strong oral tradition suggests that he was a conductor. Barbara McKenzie, Bennett's great-granddaughter, says that she was told that "Underneath his front porch there was a trapdoor that led to a room where you could put runaway slaves." Bennett, whose home on Tuttle Road no longer stands, certainly was an abolitionist: a founder of Augusta's Evangelical Friends Church, he was active in the Anti-Slavery Association, and his obituary describes him as "a prominent anti-slavery man of olden times."

John Lowry: In 1899, Judge Noah Cheever, who had been in Ann Arbor since 1859, published a book called Pleasant Walks and Drives about Ann Arbor. Cheever recommended stopping at the farm of John Lowry [probably the John Lowy listed in Siebert], explaining that "Mr. Lowry's house was one of the stations to the underground railroad and he assisted a great many slaves on their way to Canada. ... Mr. Sellick Wood, lately deceased of our city, told me that when he was a young man he drove a number of loads of fleeing negro slaves from Mr. Lowry's home to the Detroit River and saw that they were safely carried across to Canada." Lowry's house, now gone, stood on the west side of Ann Arbor-Saline Road, near Brassow.

The route to Canada

From Ann Arbor, the next stop to the east was Ypsilanti. A. P. Marshall's Unconquered Souls: The History of the African American in Ypsilanti, includes a discussion of the city's involvement in the Underground Railroad. Marshall says that George McCoy transported fugitives in wagons with false bottoms and gave them shelter in his barn, while Helen McAndrew hid them in either her octagon house or her barn. Both of these homes have been torn down. "The only house we can absolutely verify is the Norris house," Marshall says. Mark Norris lived at 213 North River Street and was a prominent early settler whose role in the Underground Railroad is documented in letters retained by his family. Others have suggested that fugitives were hidden in Ypsilanti's black church, but Marshall is doubtful. "The church was in an old livery stable and didn't have a basement. It's the first place [slave hunters] would look."

Going north out of Ann Arbor, up Pontiac Trail from the Beckley houses, or straight north from the Geddes and Glazier houses, fugitives would pass the hamlet of Salem. While no contemporary evidence has been found that Salem residents aided the fugitives, The History of Salem Township, published in 1976, lists seven possible Underground Railroad sites, based on older documents and stories told by local residents. The hamlet's support for abolition is indisputable: in the 1840 election it led the county in voting for the antislavery Liberty party, giving the abolitionists sixty-three votes, compared with fifty in Ann Arbor and twenty in Ypsilanti.

Photograph of Guy Beckley's home at 1425
Pontiac Trail

Guy Beckley's home at 1425 Pontiac Trail.

From Ypsilanti, the former slaves originally traveled east through Plymouth, River Rouge, and Swartzburg to Detroit. When that route became too closely watched, the line shifted northward, passing through a string of towns--Northville, Farmington, Birmingham, Pontiac, Rochester, Utica, Romeo, Richmond, and New Haven--on the way to the St. Clair River. Finally, the fugitives were smuggled across to Canada by boat.

Living legacies

It is estimated that 40,000 former slaves and their families were living in Canada at the time of the Civil War. About half of them eventually moved back to the United States. They came over a period of decades to rejoin family, to return to a warmer climate, or to pursue jobs or education. In her memoir, Laura Haviland mentions a former slave named John White who after emancipation "removed to Ann Arbor, Michigan to educate his children."

Many Ann Arbor families trace their descent to these black Canadians. The local black Elks Lodge, according to member William Hampton, "was formed by a group mostly from Canada." Several well-known historic figures, including Charles Baker, co-owner of the Ann Arbor Foundry, and Claude Brown, who ran a secondhand store in the Main Street building that now houses Laky's Salon, came to Ann Arbor from Canada.

At least three Ann Arbor families have connections with North Buxton, a remarkable settlement in the middle of southwestern Ontario, near Chatham. North Buxton was founded in 1849 by William King, a minister who married the daughter of a southern plantation owner. When King's wife inherited her family's fifteen slaves, King freed them, buying land in Canada for them to resettle. They became the nucleus of a black community whose residents grew a wide range of crops, owned and operated businesses, ran hotels, organized churches, and published a newspaper. Their schools were so good that white people from neighboring communities sent their children there. And they claimed a number of firsts, including the first black Canadian elected to public office.

Ann Arborite Ruth Spann's great-aunt came from North Buxton, and Lydia Morton's great-grandfather lived in nearby Fletcher. Viola Henderson's great-aunt, Mary Ann Shadd Gary, ran a school in Windsor for black refugees. After the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made life more dangerous near the border, she moved inland to North Buxton, where in 1853 she became the first black woman in North America to edit a weekly newspaper. After the war, she returned to the United States, where she was the first black woman to graduate from Howard University Law School.

Dwight Walls, pastor of the Greater Shiloh Church of God in Christ in Ypsilanti, is descended from John Freeman Walls, a former slave from North Carolina, and Jane Walls, the white widow of his original master. The Wallses escaped the South, reached Canada by boat from Toledo, and settled in Puce, Ontario. Dwight Walls's grandfather moved to Detroit to work after World War II, but his family still has many Canadian connections. He reports that a number of black Ypsilantians have Canadian roots, including the Bass, Perry, and Kersey families, as well as the Grayer family of his mother.

Descendants of the original settlers still live in North Buxton, although only two families still farm and the children go into Chatham for school. Artifacts from the original settlement, including King's bed and many photographs, can be viewed in the Raleigh Township Centennial Museum. In Puce, Walls's cousins run the John Freeman Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum, which includes the log cabin his ancestors lived in and the graveyard where they are buried.

Amherstburg, where many fugitives arrived by rowboat, honors their place in black history with the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre. These and several other sites--including the homestead of Josiah Henson, the man believed to be the model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin--form the African-Canadian Heritage Tour.

Sites in Michigan are harder to find. In Battle Creek, the store where Erastus Hussey once hid runaway slaves is gone, its place noted by a historical marker. Another marker tells the story of the Merritts, a Quaker family who hid slaves. In nearby Schoolcraft, Nathan Thomas's house still stands. Privately owned, it is periodically opened to the public. In Cassopolis, there's a historical marker on the former site of the Quaker meetinghouse, once a key center for fugitives entering from Indiana.

Researchers A. P. Marshall and Charles Lindquist, and Mary Butler, archivist for the Historical Society of Battle Creek, all speak of the frustration of working with such ephemeral evidence. But more information may come to light through a U.S. Parks Service project to identify and mark Underground Railroad sites on which the Guy Beckley home has been listed. The larger than expected attendance at the National Underground Freedom Center, which opened in Cincinnati in 2004, also shows that there is an increasing interest.

The period of slavery is an enormous blot on American history. The Underground Railroad was a heartening exception, in which people of all races worked together to help slaves to freedom. Retelling the story, we celebrate the courage and ingenuity of those who escaped, the kindness of both blacks and whites who helped them on their journey, and the ability of the fugitives to start life over in Canada--and, for many, yet again in the United States.

Comments

Underground Railroad

Fascinating; so glad that Ann Arbor had a place in this part of history!


Amazing Ann Arbor History

How amazing that Ann Arbor had such a prominent role to play in helping slaves escape to freedom!


Never knew

That Ann Arbor was such a big stop! Very interesting about Dexter's founder.