Birmingham's mystery couple revealed: How the Taylors found freedom

In 2020, George Getschman, a board member of the Friends of the Birmingham Museum and a Greenwood Cemetery tour guide, was doing research on a Civil War Veteran when he came across an unusual obituary for George Basil Taylor.

Upon further research, he discovered that not only was Taylor buried in the historic cemetery, but the obituary stated that he was formerly enslaved. His wife, Eliza, died six months after him; they both had escaped from the South using the Underground Railroad network. 

“While they appeared in the cemetery records, there is no [personal] information in the cemetery records, so it was just by luck that I happened to read the obituary,” says Getschman about his discovery.

This started an extensive research project for the museum with most of the research being performed by Donna Casaceli, museum specialist, and archivist, and Leslie Pielack, the museum director.

George and Eliza Taylor.“Everything we know about the Taylors and subsequently the Underground Railroad activities in the area comes from their research,” Getschman says, adding that it took about three years of dedicated research to uncover the details.

Since this discovery and subsequent research, Greenwood Cemetery is now counted as one of the National Parks Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites. Casaceli, who just received her graduate certificate in Archival Administration, was thankful for the chance to piece the story together.

“This was a major challenge and opportunity,” Casaceli reflects. “They were born into slavery, so birth certificates did not exist.” 

Moreover, most of the enslaved did not have last names or they took the last names of their owners. In many cases, Casaceli had to research the property of slave owners in the South to find correlations to either Eliza's or George’s story to match records.

“George Taylor mentioned in an interview that he was held by Elizabeth Greathouse. We were able to track down her original estate and going then through probate records and slave registry we found out that she inherited a young boy named George.”

Casaceli also mentions that in the same interview, Taylor explains his father’s name was Basil Taylor, and in the same town was a freed Black man named Basil Taylor.

"It took a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails; it was three years of research,” she says. “But it’s like a treasure hunt, and when you can bring these stories to the community it makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

George Basil Taylor was formerly enslaved in Northern Kentucky and escaped in 1855 through routes in Southfield. His wife Eliza escaped to Royal Oak where she was seeking to reunite with her mother who lived there. While enslaved in Alabama, Eliza Taylor experienced the auction block three times. When she finally escaped to seek refuge with her mother, she had not seen her in 22 years. 

Though we don’t know many details about Eliza’s escape, we have a first-hand account of George Taylor’s escape as published in The Detroit Journal in 1889, and republished in the Birmingham Eccentric.

“George [Taylor] had a very scary escape,” reports Getschman. After one close encounter of recapture, he was eventually caught by bounty hunters, people who roamed through the northern free states trying to catch escaped slaves. The magistrate in George Taylor’s case, however, was an abolitionist and argued that there wasn’t enough evidence that George Taylor had escaped, so he was set free.

For a while, George Taylor went to Canada, but he eventually came back to the area and worked as a farmhand. In the 1870s he married Eliza Dosier and they had a farm together. After moving around some, they eventually returned to retire in Michigan. They joined the Presbyterian church and lived in Birmingham for the rest of their lives.

In addition to farming, they helped orphaned children reunite with their parents or find people willing to adopt them after emancipation. “They were always fostering children,” mentioned Getschman.

When the Civil War ended, emancipated children of the South had nowhere to go. According to Casaceli’s research, the Taylors had a revolving door of foster children for years after the Civil War.

“In some of the census records we saw children listed in one year then the next census they’re not in the house; another group is in the house. The children are coming in and out with a single name so we can’t track them. There were a lot of children who were pulled away from their mothers and fathers. Many children at the end of the Civil War were often left [without care].”

Detroit and its surrounding towns were a place of refuge for the formerly enslaved and an area sought after because of its sympathies with the abolitionist movement. Often people would escape to Michigan and decide to stay.

However, the danger of re-enslavement didn’t always end at the Mason-Dixon line an bounty hunters were prevalent, especially in states like New York. They were common in Michigan because, Getschman explains, it was the “endpoint” of the Underground Railroad before Canada. 

In some cases, freedom seekers were hidden in wagons with hay or hidden bottoms while they were transported from place to place. There were also stockholders, someone who funded the Railroad system.

“A conductor,” explains Casaceli, “was a person who transported people through stations. A station master owned the barn or house where the people would stay.”

It was a network, not a secret trail, and according to Casaceli, most "station masters" or "conductors" didn’t know what happened to the freedom seekers at the next station, they would rarely know where the people were going next. 

Because the graves of Eliza and George Taylor were unmarked, the Friends of the Birmingham Museum got together with the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Piety Hill Chapter to help raise funds to build a monument in the cemetery dedicated to the Taylors and their courageous escape to freedom.

The cost of the monument was going to come to almost $9,000 but in just six months the community raised $57,000 dollars for the initiative. The group is hoping to host a debut of the monument sometime this month. 
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Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.