Tour traces history of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti Underground Railroad sites

Journey to Freedom has been running for nearly two decades

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

Tour guide and docent Deborah Meadows and homeowner of the historic Guy Beckley estate, Bethany Steinberg (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR - On a sunny afternoon on Aug. 19, 77 people gathered in the parking lot of Washtenaw Community College to board two buses to embark on the docent-guided Journey to Freedom tour.

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and secret routes organized by abolitionists in the 19th century to aid African-American slaves seeking freedom. 

Two key routes to Canada via Detroit passed through this area, and were used largely by freedom seekers who came from Kentucky and Missouri.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


 

In conjunction with the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum and the University of Michigan Arts of Citizenship program, the tour visits verified stops on the Underground Railroad based on state birth and census records, and plat maps.

Nearly 20 years ago, historians and U-M students joined together to uncover the area's history, which was buried in the archives of U-M's Bentley Historical and Clements Libraries, and the Ypsilanti Historical Library for decades. 

Journey to Freedom is a member of the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program and the National Park Service.

Maiden Lane and Pontiac Trail

The first stop on the tour is the Wall St. parking garage on Maiden Lane.

There, you can find plaques detailing the history of Ann Arbor's anti-slavery weekly newspaper the Signal of Liberty, which was published on Broadway St. between 1841 and 1846 and had a readership of roughly 2,000.

Tour guide and docent Carol E. Mull, a published author and scholar on Michigan's Underground Railroad, gives a presentation on Ann Arbor's early abolitionists (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

Signal of Liberty plaque at the Wall St. parking structure on Maiden Lane (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

The paper was founded by Theodore Foster and the Rev. Guy Beckley, who was from a strong abolitionist family. 

Along with poems, local notices and national stories, he published oral histories of freedom seekers.

The Ann Arbor District Library has digitized more than 350 copies of Signal of Liberty, which can be read here.

After spending a few moments learning about the plaques and the papers' history, we were off to Pontiac Trail, a well-known route on the Underground Railroad.

William R. Perry's home at 1317 Pontiac Trail. Perry was an avid abolitionist and supporter of the Signal of Liberty (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

First, we passed the Perry House, which according to a document dating to 1930, has a hidden compartment that was used to hide slaves seeking freedom.

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

A few blocks away, we passed a brick schoolhouse at 1202 Traver Road, which was built in the 1840s and converted to a private residence 20 years later. It was an integrated school, admitting black and white students, and is said to also have a trap door that leads to a hidden room in the basement. Though no documentation exists proving this was a stop on the Underground Railroad, word of mouth is that freedom seekers sought shelter at this site.

Home of Guy Beckley 

An impressive structure, it was built using bricks from a brickyard Beckley owned in the 1840s. The home has been named the No. 1 Underground Railroad site in the state of Michigan.

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

There, the tour convened in the beautifully landscaped backyard which backs onto Beckley Park.

The current homeowner, Bethany Steinberg, welcomed us to her home and read two accounts of freedom seekers from Signal of Liberty, including a harrowing tale of how a 16-year-old girl fled St. Louis and passed through the Ann Arbor area.

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

Bethany Steinberg speaks with members of the tour (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"We have lived here 21 years," said Steinberg. "We were a little bit aware of the history, but with the beauty of the internet, we found out so much more. When I read about what he wrote, I can almost imagine him. He had tomatoes and eggs thrown at him; he was harassed. But he called out all the churches, and this is a time where a lot of churches had split over slavery. 

"It's wonderful to live here," she continued. "The (museum) reached out to us. They knew we had history that came with the house, (such as) papers and drawings. And this area has incredible history. It’s the first area where African-Americans were given mortgages, so in the 1930s or 40s, a lot of African-Americans lived in this part of town."

Steinberg and her husband have opened their doors over the years to students of all ages. 

"Little kids say, 'Is it haunted?' and we say, 'It’s haunted by good spirits. And when my kids were little I’d be like, 'I hear Guy Beckley walking around and he says to get to bed!'" Steinberg said.

Journey north

Between stops, our tour guide and docent, Deborah Meadows, urged us to imagine what it was like for freedom seekers on their journeys through these wooded areas. They had no access to food or water, and had only the clothes on their back and rudimentary forms of navigation.

She explained that when the North Star (the main marker for self-liberated slaves traveling north) was not visible due to weather conditions, freedom seekers would check for moss patterns on trees, since moss grows facing north.

Code words were also used in this area to denote locations.

Detroit was "midnight," and the river crossing from Detroit to Canada was "dawn."

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

John Geddes' involvement

When Ann Arbor was established in 1824, many people who moved there were East Coasters looking to buy land for cheap. 

One of those people was John Geddes.

He bought hundreds of acres and is said to have assisted freedom seekers using a cellar inside his home. He reportedly denied these claims publicly, as did others who were likely involved in the Underground Railroad. 

The current homeowner of the Geddes estate is part of the historical society and is a descendant of a freedom seeker.

After seeing the rusted cellar door on the exterior of Geddes' home, we made our way to Ypsilanti, where we passed historic churches and homes.

U.S. 12 was a major route on the Underground Railroad. Author, statesman and former slave Frederick Douglass is said to have visited Ypsilanti three times.

Starkweather Homestead

The tour's final stop was at the Starkweather Homestead, a known safe house on the Underground Railroad. 

The Starkweathers and their employees, including African-American inventor Elijah McCoy, were conductors and sheltered numerous slaves en route to Canada on their farm.

The property was recently saved from demolition and renovated by retired builder and longtime Ypsilanti resident Ronald Rupert.

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

Rupert greeted us at the site, and allowed members of the tour into the entryway of the home, which has several historic artifacts on display.

From the steps of the homestead, Meadows said her first experience taking the tour was while visiting home from college. "I was awestruck. My mouth (fell) open because I had no idea places I had passed every day were so significant," Meadows said.

She also said this tour marked a milestone.

"This is the biggest tour we've ever had," she said. "Our normal is between 15-30 people, so we’ve easily tripled that. We want it to be a special occasion for everyone; for kids, for people of all ages."

Beyond the breadth of knowledge and history Meadows shared on the tour, personal accounts of attendees were also moving. As we passed sites, some would share their memories from growing up, or how their families had ties to certain buildings. 

The museum's fundraising co-chair, Bob Elliott, pointed out where he was born on Detroit Street in Kerrytown, Ann Arbor's historic African-American business district.

While we were in Ypsilanti, his wife and fundraising co-chair, Beverely, shared with me her memories of family members who'd had memorial services held for them at Lucille's Memorial Chapel, the first African-American owned funeral parlor in the city.

AAHCM fundraising co-chairs Bob and Beverely Elliott (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

It demonstrated the shared history of the area, which Meadows said makes the tour all the more impactful.

"Part of learning is sharing with others. So this is all information that all of us are a part of. And just knowing about those who came before us makes us love it even more. It makes it tangible; it makes history something you can touch and you can feel."

To learn more about the tour, click here.

This tour was the last of the season. For inquiries about future dates and tickets, contact Deborah Meadows at deborahmeadows2@msn.com.

Read: Decades in the making: African-American historical museum expected to open in Ann Arbor

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