Revealing secrets: Underground Railroad under our feet

. February 1, 2017.
First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor
First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor

Within every community are secrets. Often these whispers are of little known history from the generations that built it, passed down to the people forming its future. It isn’t often that these tales become beloved anecdotes of progress.

Street by street, house by house, many of the historic structures, and members of our community played a key role in the delivery of former slaves to freedom.

Trace the remnants of the barely visible trails, forged more than a lifetime ago by a network of the brave, sympathetic individuals that supporting fugitives on their way to freedom.
You just have to know where to look.

South Adams Street, Ypsilanti

In his Blog “South Adams Street @1900 – a Historic African American Neighborhood,” local historian Matthew Siegfried describes the historical relevance behind today’s South Adams Street and environs.

“Many of those escaping bondage for Canada, some forty miles to the east of Ypsilanti, came through the City by following, often at night, an important Michigan Central Rail line running across the State. Some stayed; others returned to Ypsilanti in the years after the war.”

Josiah Beckley’s mercantile store, where the Signal of Liberty was published,in the Huron Block on Broadway. Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library.

Josiah Beckley’s mercantile store, where the Signal of Liberty was published,in the Huron Block on Broadway. Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library.

Siegfried also provides a map on his blog site, as well as a summer walking tour, with information about the buildings, the historical reference behind them, and the streets on which they still stand, to follow and learn.

Huron Block on Broadway, Ann Arbor

In 1841, the Signal of Liberty anti-slavery newspaper was founded, printed and published weekly on the second floor of what was once Josiah Beckley’s mercantile shop on Broadway Avenue in Downtown Ann Arbor.

With the aim of helping to fight slavery and inform the public about the atrocities of slavery, abolitionists Theodore Foster and Rev. Guy Beckley, launched the publication. Their bravery, according to Carol E. Mull of Ann Arbor Public Library, “Achieved its goal of bringing the issue of slavery into the hearts and minds of the people, and led (them) to resist slavery, change their churches and political parties, and fight for freedom.”

First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor

Located at 1432 Washtenaw Avenue between Hill Street and South University Avenue, the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor is the site where delegates from Southeast Michigan gathered for an Anti-Slavery State Convention on November 10, 1836. Two days later, the delegates established the Michigan Anti Slavery Society, adopted reform measures and risked extreme retribution by officially denouncing slavery by publishing an antislavery newspaper.

First Congregational Church, Ann Arbor

Photo courtesy of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor

Photo courtesy of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor

This pillar of the Underground Railroad community was founded in 1847 by former members of First Presbyterian, who broke away in part because they wanted to take a stronger stance against slavery.

Located in the heart of Downtown Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s campus at the corner of East William and State Street, the church traces its historical beginnings to “a group of 48 Christians whose strong opposition to slavery set them apart in their church missions,” according to the website

Looking for more? These locations are just a few of places to visit when exploring the historical and cultural significance of the Underground Railroad in Washtenaw County. The newly renovated African American Cultural & Historical Museum (AACHM) provides both bus and walking tours, as well as exhibits, ongoing programs, information and links from its site to other museums and historically relevant organizations. For more information, go to: www.aachmuseum.org

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