Tecumseh area an important stop on the Underground Railroad
During Black History Month, it is not likely many people will think of Lenawee County’s contributions to black history in America. Lenawee County is not often perceived as a progressive area. This is a quiet county filled with small, sleepy towns, and hard-working people.
And yet, before the Civil War, according to historical documentation found at the Lenawee County Historical Society, Lenawee County set the standard in Michigan for strong support against slavery as an immoral act. With the zeal of missionaries, residents worked hard to provide assistance in different forms for escaped slaves from southern plantations. The Antislavery-Underground Railroad Movement in Lenawee County, Michigan 1830-1860 by Charles Lindquist, published in 1999, provides a historical background of this era in Lenawee County, and the impact residents had on the country.
By the 1830s, there was a strong anti-slavery sentiment for many people in the United States. Despite laws that insisted slaves were property and not humans with a free-will, certain groups of people worked hard to change the perception of slavery as well as to assist slaves find a new life in the north.
In Raisin Township there was strong support of anti-slavery activism. Historians believe the movement began with Quakers, Presbyterians and Baptists and then quickly spread through the county.
Some people gravitated to politics where they hoped to make a change through laws. The evolution of politics began with the Liberty Party followed by the Free Soil Party and finally ending with the Republican Party. By 1860, Republicans were the dominant party in Lenawee County, and regularly fought for the elimination of slavery.
Other people ignored politics, focusing on education about the evils of slavery. This group used lectures and the written word to show the dangers and cruelty suffered by slaves in the United States. They worked hard to provide freedom and emancipation for slaves in the southern states.
Moving north up from states in the deep South, many fugitives found Lenawee County a perfect stopping place. They were assisted with work, food and clothing. Other slaves preferred to move farther north into Michigan and Canada.
Local residents provided educational opportunities for fugitives and freed slaves. The Raisin Institute was the first integrated school in Michigan and the Woodstock Manual Labor Institute operated as a trade school.
Anti-slavery activists worked together as a kind of task force to prevent the fugitive slaves from forcible return to owners. Records show that fugitives were rarely hidden away in tunnels or secret rooms. It was more likely the activists, as a group, would directly confront the owner, refusing to allow contact between the fugitive and the owner.
Elizabeth Chandler (1807-1834) was a Quaker woman who moved with family members to Lenawee County from Philadelphia. She was inspired to start the Logan Female Antislavery Society.
The organization inspired Lenawee County’s most famous abolitionist, Laura Smith Haviland. After participating in Chandler’s organization, Haviland and her husband became strong defenders of escaping slaves. When the Quaker community did not reflect the strong beliefs she and her husband held against slavery, the couple left the group in 1834. Knowing the importance of skills and education for all people, the Havilands started The Raisin Institute in 1839 after a previous attempt to run a manual labor school was unsuccessful.
Despite the federal Fugitive Slave Act, residents continued to work hard providing freedom for a great number of fugitives. Haviland traveled extensively leading fugitives north, and working to educate and provide assistance for new lives in southeast Michigan.
The lore of local houses participating in the Underground Railroad seems to be mostly spoken stories with little or no written documentation to back up claims of tunnels and secret rooms. The Anderson-Beardsley House, a Greek revival style home, is a perfect example of whispered stories of slaves secreted away in hidden rooms as well as traveling in underground tunnels.
Growing up in the Anderson-Beardsley House, Ann Beardsley and her sister Susan K. Preslar remember their father saying he closed off a tunnel that ran under Chicago Boulevard to keep them and their other five siblings from getting hurt. They said the eighth step from the bottom of the stairs to the basement opened up to allow transfer of small items to someone under the stairs, while a workbench at the bottom of the stairs opened to allow access to space under the stairs. Two built-in bookshelves/cabinets in the deepest part of the basement opened into hiding places along the house’s foundation.
Beardsley said, “I remember seeing a cistern beneath the house down the outer stairs and to the right.”
“It was a great house,” said Preslar. “You had a lot of possibilities.”
Although the specifics of which houses in the area were linked to the Underground Railroad are hazy, the reality that Lenawee County led the state and much of the nation in the battle against slavery is documented through pictures and research found at the Lenawee County Historical Society Museum.