A look at Ypsilanti's role in the Underground Railroad
Editor's note: Attribution has been added to this story for two paragraphs near the end containing information obtained from a 1992 Ypsilanti Press article.
Ypsilanti is said to have been a major stop on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape from the South to freedom in Canada. Sadly, most of what is known of the Underground Railroad is myth. After the Civil War, when admitting to having taken part in the Underground Railroad was safe and prestigious, many came forward with their tales of bravery and derring-do, and some of the stories were true.
Even now, when an old house or building is being remodeled and what might have been a hidden room is found, the assumption is made it was part of the Underground Railroad. Some of these houses and buildings were built long after the Civil War but before Prohibition. In truth, only a few were part of the Underground Railroad, and some of these were in and near Ypsilanti.
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Commissioners were to be appointed who would decide if those accused of being runaway slaves should be returned to their owners or freed. Those accused of being runaway slaves had no right to counsel, could not testify on their own behalf and were denied right of trial by jury. Commissioners were paid $10 dollars for each slave returned to his or her owner, and paid $5 for each person freed.
Mary A. Goddard, assistant professor of natural sciences at the Michigan State Normal College, now Eastern Michigan University, researched the Underground Railroad in Ypsilanti for a paper she wrote in April of 1913.
She wrote: “Even the children of the families of those connected with it knew little of what was actually going on about them. The success of the institution depended on secrecy. So it happened that many of the leading workers died without having told even their children much, if anything, about their activities in the Underground Railroad. Some who may yet be living are unknown, and it is not easy to search them out. In these investigations many people have been visited, but few have been able to give any information, though they were living in Ypsilanti at the time when the work of the Railroad was at its height.”
As part of her investigation, Mary Goddard interviewed Anna McCoy, the daughter of George McCoy. As an adult, Anna married a man named McCoy who was not related to her family. Her brother was Elijah McCoy, famous for his automatic lubricating cup, “the Real McCoy.”
George McCoy was born a slave, the property of his father, in Louisville, Ky. At the age of 21, George was freed and given a horse, saddle and $100, but stayed with his father working in his father’s cigar shop. George married a woman named Mildred, a slave belonging to a family named Gaines. The two fled to Canada, where they settled for some time. Then the family moved to Ypsilanti. The family lived for a time on the farm of John and Maryann Starkweather. George grew tobacco and made cigars, which he sold in Wyandotte and Detroit.
“Mrs. McCoy remembers,” wrote Mary Goddard, “when she was little, going to the post office for mail. Sometimes letters would come from a Mr. Hatfield of Cincinnati. On these days her mother would bake a large batch of bread and cook hams. Then the children would be put to bed early, being told it was good for children to get plenty of sleep. The next day her father would always make a trip. As Anna grew older, she noticed that shortly after they went to bed the smell of coffee pervaded the house, and the following day little would be left of the large baking. These things, together with her father’s trips, seemed very mysterious and greatly aroused her curiosity, but by degrees, as she grew older, she discovered what it was all about.”
George carried the escaping slaves in the false bottom of his covered wagon. At Wyandotte, a Mr. Bush aided the slaves' escape to Canada in his boat, the “Pearl.” It is not known how much John and Maryann Starkweather knew of what George was doing.
Another who is known to have been active in the Underground Railroad was Leonard Chase, who ran a station from his home on Cross Street, one block east of the Huron River, although some sources place the house near the present site of the water tower. Eunice Lambie Hatch recalled her grandmother, Maria Morton, preparing food and carrying the food to the Chase home. The Hatch home was on River Street and was demolished in the 1960s.
According to an article by Kim Kozlowski in a January 1992 edition of the Ypsilanti Press, a family named Prescott lived in a log cabin near where the Peninsular Paper Mill stood, now the site of Peninsular Place Apartments. The Prescotts were abolitionists and conductors in the Underground Railroad. Mrs. Prescott ran a school for African American children in their home. Anna McCoy was one of her students.
Prince Bennett was an African American who lived south of Ypsilanti in Augusta Township. The house stood on Tuttle Hill Road, a half mile north of Willis Road. Bennett is said to have had a hidden room under his porch, covered with a trap door. A rug was placed over the trap door, and a rocking chair set on the rug.
One day, slave catchers came by and asked Bennett’s wife, who was sitting in the rocking chair, if she had seen any escaped slaves. She gave an honest answer of “No.” She had not seen any slaves that day, as they were in the hidden room under her rocking chair. The Bennett house is said to have burned down early in the 20th century.
The Civil War and the freeing of the slaves brought the need for the Underground Railroad to an end. The Underground Railroad officially shut down in 1870.
James Mann writes a monthly column on Ypsilanti history for AnnArbor.com.