The Underground Railroad Tour: Showing social justice in a space and place

The history of the Underground Railroad in Michigan is much further reaching than this state, alone. The stories of families who traveled through underground networks into Michigan had roots in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. In telling the Michigan story, the Southwest Michigan Underground Railroad Tour will pull from these stories and family histories to offer participants a deeper understanding of the resistance to slavery history, here.

On Saturday, June 3, the daylong event, hosted by S.H.A.R.E., will take participants to various locations around Southwest Michigan that were known safe harbors during the Underground Railroad. Inspired by primary source documents, the Southwest Michigan Underground Railroad Tour will combine site visits and performances by poets and vocalists to fully immerse participants in the experience.

Donna Odom, Executive Director of S.H.A.R.E. says that the origins of Underground Railroad tours in Southwest Michigan date back to about 2006, when Odum was working at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. 

“We held a Freedom Camp for middle school students with activities ... that taught them about the Underground Railroad. Part of that camp was a tour of various sites in the area that were part of the Underground Railroad story -- the Schoolcraft safe house, the monuments in Battle Creek, Vandalia, etc. At some point, we teamed up with Michelle Johnson, the Michigan Freedom Trail Coordinator, Denise Miller, poet and educator, and a vocalist, and the tour became what it is today.”

Michelle S. Johnson, PhD, periodically contracts with the Michigan History Center and she was a Freedom Trail coordinator for almost 10 years for the State of Michigan. Her work involved documenting, preserving, and promoting underground railroad sites and resistance to slavery history in Michigan. 

Johnson says that in the past, participants would just sort of drop-in from spot to spot along the tour, but eventually, organizers began to incorporate primary sources that were sometimes emerging from that very place that they were visiting. “Initially we started actually doing the performance before the tour, and a little bit of the performance after the tour, but we ultimately just blended it into the tour.”

An example of that blending is the performance that takes place at the historic site in Cass County, known as Young's Prairie. In 1847 a group of 12 escaped from Kentucky farmers, where they had been enslaved. Through the assistance of Underground Railroad agents, the group settled in hiding at various farms in Cass County. The Kentucky farmers later raided those farms in an attempt to recapture and claim ownership over the people who had escaped. 

“When we have accounts of, for instance, from a man named Perry Sanford, about that raid and about the attempts to bring other people back into slavery, we present that portion of the performance and his voice on location as close as we can get to where he might have been. In this case, we can get really quite close because the house still stands and he did get out while this raid was going on,” says Johnson.

Johnson says that the Underground Railroad and resistance to slavery in Michigan is a manifestation of her PhD work in American Cultures with a focus on Black people's relationship with the land and the natural world.  

“Identifying all of the ways that people have resisted slavery for 200 years -- including escape, including education, including retaining elements of African culture, including becoming politically active – the whole range of collaborating across and within organizations -- all of those pieces were essential to my PhD studies and my doctorate,” says Johnson.  

The tours can help reshape people's understanding about places and where Black people have been. “Right now, conventional wisdom is that Black people aren't in Marshall, but we certainly know there is a much deeper history there with the prominence of Black people and standing up for their own individual freedom and the freedom of each other,” Johnson says.

The tours, for Johnson, are a way to articulate social justice in space and place. Looking at the Underground Railroad and Resistance to Slavery explores what it means to have a diverse group of people being able to have access to space, and land, and means of production, and autonomous articulation of themselves, and what they see as their freedoms. Ultimately, it addresses issues of what is equitable and just and socially sustainable. 

Resistance has never looked like just one thing or utilized just one strategy. Resistance efforts generally arise out of oppression and injustice to try to find ways to reshape unjust laws into laws that will hold equity and social justice for all people.

“Underground Railroad and resistance to slavery here in Michigan presents to us a very viable and continually viable method for addressing oppression on so many levels.” Johnson hopes the message of resistance to oppression will be something that people can pull from these past accounts and apply to circumstances today.

Odum hopes that people who take the tour will gain an appreciation for the richness of the history of our area, but she especially hopes that people will begin to learn about and appreciate how the desire for freedom led to the courage, resourcefulness, and resilience of those who resisted slavery. 

“We want African Americans to see that, rather than feeling shame about enslavement, that they feel pride in their ability to survive and thrive. We hope everyone, especially in today's climate, will be inspired by the power of resistance.”

For details, questions, or to register for the tour that gets underway at 8:30 a.m., you can visit the Southwest Michigan Underground Railroad Tour registration page

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer, living in Kalamazoo. You can find her at her website, kathivaleii.com.







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