Birmingham Museum discovers city’s connection to Underground Railroad, gets national recognition

Burial sites of ex-slave, abolitionist in Birmingham recognized by National Park Service

George and Eliza Taylor grave site. (Birmingham Museum.)

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. – Two burial sites in Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery have been recognized by the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The Birmingham Museum applied to the National Park Service for the burial sites of freedom seeker George B. Taylor and abolitionist Elijah S. Fish to be recognized, and those applications were approved just this week.

The two sites are among sixteen new listings added to the network. The new listings are spread across 11 states. There are 700 sites, facilities and programs already in the network.

Finding the stories

Volunteers and staff with the Birmingham Museum have been working passionately to uncover stories worth telling.

Museum staff and local historians have always believed that there were people in the Birmingham area that were connected to the Underground Railroad, according to Birmingham Museum Director Leslie Pielack.

“We sort of lived and breathed this stuff every day,” Pielack said. “Their stories were there, but we didn’t know how to find those stories.”

Pielack said the case was cracked wide open by one particular volunteer: George Getschman, a dentist who is also a historian. He discovered the obituary for George Taylor -- then later discovered the obituary for George Taylor’s wife, Eliza Taylor.

“They were identified as African American, not only African American, but that George Taylor had been formerly enslaved. Not only that, but that they were the first African Americans to own property in Birmingham,” Pielack said.

Once they had the names, the team of volunteers and museum staff started looking at property records -- working the trail backward in time. Researcher Jacquie Patt found a published interview in which George Taylor details his escape from Kentucky.

“The harrowing, awful experience of being on foot, traveling largely in the dark, being chased down by dogs and bounty hunters. And that gave us so much additional information,” Pielack said. “I think of the two men, they’re both really important, but I think George Taylor’s story was so little known and had been overlooked in Birmingham’s history. Because even though he was buried in our cemetery, he didn’t have a marker. He and his wife didn’t have markers. So we had their names on a list, we knew they had been buried there -- but didn’t know anything more about them. Except for their names on a list. So, that has changed dramatically in the last year and a half or two.”

Pielack said these stories have the potential of shining a light on other important stories in Birmingham’s history. Those stories could include Black history, early Native American and pioneer period stories. They plan to keep researching.

“I think the public wants to know more about these people that have been overlooked and whose stories were launched for a while. We’re going to start that process now. And this designation will help shine a light on people like them. But, definitely these people who made a difference, even in a small community like Birmingham was at the time,” Pielack said.

Pielack said museum staff and volunteers are working on a lot of stories, but these ones are the ones they’re focusing on most. They want to make sure the stories of George Taylor, Eliza Taylor and Elijah Fish are told as completely as possible.

What we know about George Taylor and his wife

An article from the Birmingham Eccentric released on Jan. 14, 1898 describes George Taylor and his wife as the “only colored family in Birmingham” at the time.

According to the article, George Taylor was born a slave in Kentucky in 1820. He escaped on April 1, 1855, when he was 31 years old.

He traveled for two weeks, moving only at night and using the North star as his guide. He was making slow progress and decided to travel by daylight.

“Now began his troubles in earnest. Overcome by weariness one afternoon he fell asleep in some bushes near the roadside, awakening to find himself prisoner of two men,” the article reads.

George Taylor escaped his captors and the bloodhounds they used to track him. He traveled for five more days without access to food, until he was found by an abolitionist. He stayed with the abolitionist until he recovered his strength.

“Two days after he left this refuge, he was run down by bloodhounds. The dogs holding him until their owners came up and placed him under arrest,” the article reads.

George Taylor was brought before a judge who ordered his release.

George Taylor finally reached Niles, Michigan where he was then led to Detroit and across the river to Windsor, Ontario. When it was safe to do so, George Taylor returned to Michigan.

He married Elizabeth Ann Desier of Southfield, Michigan in 1869. Desier was born into slavery in Tennessee. After the war, she found her mother in Royal Oak. They had not seen each other for 22 years.

The text from the article has been transcribed below to make it easier to read:

“Two Good Old Souls

Ed P. Jarvis Tells About Them in the Detroit Journal

Only Colored Family in Birmingham - Taylor escaped to Windsor when 31 years old - Mrs. Taylor was sold on the block three times.

There is only one colored family living in Birmingham, and it is also the only colored family which pays taxes in Bloomfield Township, George Taylor, the head of the family, was born a slave in Hancock County, Ky. 78 years ago. He was the property of a Mrs. Greathouse. He was not treated very kindly, but did not rebel until he was 31 years old. Having been subjected to a public whipping at this time, however, he decided to make his escape at the first opportunity, and on April 1, 1855, he started for the north.

A brother ferried him across the river to the Indiana side. He traveled for two weeks, at night only, using the north star as his guide. Then he decided, because of the slow progress he was making, that he must travel by daylight. Now began his troubles in earnest. Overcome by weariness one afternoon he fell asleep in some bushes near the roadside, awakening to find himself prisoner of two men. The men were accompanied by bloodhounds, but Taylor took a desperate chance and made a break into the bushes. The shots his captors fired after him went wide, but the dogs were hot on his trial and he narrowly escaped being recaptured while beating them off.

He then traveled for five days without food and was nearly dead from hunger and exposure when he was found by an abolitionist, who kept him until he had recovered his strength. Two days after he left this refuge he was run down by bloodhounds, the dogs helding him until their owners came up and placed him under arrest. Fortunately he was taken before a justice whose sympathies were with the abolitionists, and he ordered his release. Finally, after many more thrilling experiences, he reached Niles, from which he was hurried to Detroit, and then across the river to Windsor, having been on the road four weeks. As soon as it was safe to do so Mr. Taylor came back to the United States and has lived in this section ever since.

In 1869 he was married to Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Desier, of Southfield. Mrs. Taylor was born into slavery in Tennessee. When she was 16 years old she was sold to an Alabama planter, and twice afterwards she was put on the block and sold to the highest bidder. After the war she found her mother living at Royal Oak. She had not seen her for 22 years. She is 60 years old.”

Birmingham Eccentric from Jan. 14, 1898.

The above information was sourced from the Bloomfield Township Public Library.

Deaths of George and Eliza Taylor

Obituaries for George and Eliza Taylor from the Birmingham Eccentric. (Bloomfield Township Public Library)

George Taylor died in 1901 and Eliza Taylor died in 1902. They were buried in Greenwood Cemetery without a marker.

The museum raised almost $16,000 to erect a grave marker -- excess funds are for preservation of the cemetery. The museum hopes to hold a public celebration this spring.

The images above are from the couple’s obituaries.

“In spite of our hopes to the contrary, we are obliged this week to chronicle the death of our venerable colored friend, George B. Taylor of whose illness with blood poisoning mentioned has been made in our last two issues,” George Taylor’s obituary reads.

You can click here to read George Taylor’s obituary.

“Like her husband, Mrs. Taylor had an interesting and eventful life story, which began with her birth in slavery at Nashville, Tenn. The date of her birth is unknown, but it is believed that she was about 75 years old. While she was a small child, her father ran away and she knew nothing further about him,” the obituary for Eliza Taylor reads.

You can click here to read Eliza Taylor’s obituary.

What we know about Elijah Fish

Elijah Staunton Fish was born in 1791 in Massachusetts. In 1820, he purchased 160 acres on the Saginaw Trail, north of modern Birmingham.

His home was later known as the Benedict House and demolished in the early 20th century. Fish established the first Presbyterian Church in Birmingham in his barn.

According to the Pontiac Courier, Fish helped found the Oakland County Anti-Slavery Society. Fish was active in anti-slavery and abolitionist movements during the 1840s.

It is also believed that Fish directly worked with helping freedom seekers escape enslavement. He provided money and supplies to help them reach freedom.

The information about Elijah Fish was sourced from the Birmingham Museum -- click here to read the full article and learn more about Fish.

Getting recognized by National Underground Railroad Network

Volunteers, researchers and Birmingham Museum staff were all involved in the process of getting listed in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

“In essence, we realized, or uncovered, links to some people who were buried in our Greenwood Cemetery, who we learned were formerly enslaved and had come to Birmingham in the late 19th century and made their homes here,” Pielack said. “So we did some additional research to find out more about them and in the process of doing that, we learned that another one of our local residents, at an earlier time, had been an active abolition. And helped actively support the abolition movement in the 1830s, 40s and 50s, before the Civil War. And, so, we wanted to help draw attention to the importance of what these individuals were doing and what their lives were all about.”

To get those sites added to the National Park Service’s designation, they had to fill out an application form and provide additional details with verifications and sources that could be established; particularly, published resources and documents. Pielack said they had quite a bit of that.

“That made it possible for us to go ahead and work on the application. But the Greenwood Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in Michigan public cemeteries, and we have quite a bit of data and biographical information about the people there,” Pielack said.

They compiled what they knew for the application. To apply, the group needed the property owner’s permission. The cemetery is owned by the City of Birmingham. They took their idea to the city commission.

“They were very much on board, you know, unanimously approved the application process,” Pielack said.

After getting permission, they worked to assemble the information in writing and narrative, and sent that to the National Park Service staff to ensure they had everything they needed.

“They bring a panel of historians together in Washington, they review the materials and they make a determination based on what you send them. So that was sort of the long-haul part of this,” Pielack said. “We had really good information. So, we were very enthusiastic that we would be able to be nominated.”

Other sites across the United States

The burial sites in the city of Birmingham are among sixteen new listings to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which are spread across 11 states. There are 700 sites, facilities and programs already in the network.

“It’s fitting to welcome new additions to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom as we celebrate Harriet Tubman’s 200th birthday. Like Harriet Tubman, the freedom seekers and allies highlighted in each Network to Freedom listing remind us of what can be accomplished when people take action against injustice,” said Diane Miller, national program manager of the Network to Freedom. “Each listing holds a unique part of the Underground Railroad story, and we look forward to working with members to amplify the power of these places.”

The other newest listings are listed below:

  • Marianna Expedition on Santa Rosa Island (Site, Florida, Gulf Islands National Seashore)
  • Winterset Cemetery (Site, Iowa)
  • Dinsmore Homestead (Site, Kentucky)
  • LeCompte Plantation (Today known as Magnolia Plantation; Site, Louisiana, Cane River Creole National Historical Park)
  • Emmanuel Prudhomme Plantation (Today known as Oakland Plantation; Site, Louisiana, Cane River Creole National Historical Park)
  • Mass Escape at Mackall Plantation (Today known as St. Mary’s College; Site, Maryland)
  • Port Tobacco Jail Sites (Site, Maryland)
  • St. Stephens A.M.E. Church Cemetery, Unionville (Site, Maryland)
  • Robert Gould Shaw 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial (Site, Massachusetts)
  • Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Site (Site, New Jersey)
  • Presbyterian Plane Street Colored Church (Today known as Frederick Douglass Field; Site, New Jersey)
  • Rev. Robert Everett and Family Gravesite, Capel Ucha Welsh Congregational Church Cemetery (Site, New York)
  • Spring Grove Cemetery (Site, Ohio)
  • Cozad-Bates House Interpretive Center (Program, Ohio)
  • Destination Freedom Underground Railroad Walking Tour (Program, Pennsylvania)

Many National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites are privately owned. If the site is not open to the public, the National Park Service asks that the privacy of the site owner be respected. Click here to read more.

If you’d like to read more, a list of resources is available here: Birmingham’s Black History, A Tale of Four Families, Elijah Fish: Abolitionist, Bloomfield Township Public Library.

About the Author:

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.