The first time that Farmington’s Laura Vestrand – a communications director for the Detroit Institute of Arts who recently began serving on Farmington’s promotions committee – heard about local ties to the Underground Railroad, she was in third grade.
“Everyone got assigned a local historical marker, and you had to write a report about it,” said Vestrand. “Mine was Utley Cemetery (on Twelve Mile Rd.), and I remember feeling kind of jealous because someone else in my class did their report on the Underground Railroad. When I was eight, I’d thought, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ But when you’re in your thirties, and you really start thinking more about what that means. It’s pretty amazing.”
When Vestrand started working with Downtown Farmington’s promotions committee, “it just happened to be the beginning of Black History Month, so when (the Underground Railroad) came up, I thought it would be a great thing to tell more people about.”
To that end, Vestrand reached out to Farmington Hills resident Rochelle E. Danquah, a PhD student at Wayne State University whose studies focus on abolition, anti-slavery, and Underground Railroad activism.
Rochelle E. Danquah at the Quaker Cemetery. Photo by David Lewinski.
Danquah, in fact, was the person who invested the time and effort necessary to nominate the burial site of Nathan Power (in the Quaker Cemetery on Gill Rd.) – a son of Farmington’s first settler, Arthur Power – for inclusion in the National Underground Railroad Network. (Danquah’s application succeeded in 2012.)
“The national applications are difficult and require a lot of research,” said Danquah. “It was about a six to eight-month process. And you have to show primary documents that without question prove that, yes, this individual assisted fugitives on the Underground Railroad. … Nathan left behind a diary, but unfortunately, he does not mention one thing in his diary about the Underground Railroad. Nathan Power is, though, identified by other abolitionists in their writings, and that holds up as evidence. And in fugitives’ letters to families and friends, his name comes up quite a bit.”
Though you might assume the secret nature of the Underground Railroad makes this kind of historical detective work nearly impossible, “the evidence for Underground Railroad activism is out there,” Danquah said. “You just have to know how to locate it.”
One of the most reliable sources is the state’s old, anti-slavery newspapers, particularly Ann Arbor’s Signal of Liberty. “You’ll find abolitionists on every page, telling you what they’re doing – whether it’s about recent escapes or meetings in communities in Michigan,” said Danquah.
Earlier in the century (the 1820s), Arthur Power moved to Michigan from Farmington, New York (hence the town’s name); and because he and several other early settlers were Quakers – religious faith that teaches that all human beings are equal and worthy of respect – Farmington (which earned the nickname “Quakertown”) was home to a number of abolitionists.
And Arthur Power’s son Nathan, who’d been President of the Oakland County Antislavery Society, has been deemed a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, having provided many fugitive slaves with shelter, food, and other kinds of help. Famed escaped slave and activist Sojourner Truth spoke to groups of Quakers in Farmington on multiple occasions; and the Universalist Unitarian Church – an 1853 building that was once part of Farmington’s downtown, but was moved to 25301 Halsted Rd. in 1967 – is a venue that Danquah has “high suspicions” about, regarding the Underground Railroad, but no verifiable evidence has surfaced yet.
“The Universalists often helped with housing and moving fugitives … in the mid-nineteenth century,” said Danquah. “I can’t see why the Farmington church wouldn’t follow that pattern as well.”
Farmington generally played a key role in the Railroad system because it offered a nearby alternative when Detroit was deemed too dangerous for crossings to Canada. Freedom seekers might also, after stopping in Farmington, travel northeast to attempt a crossing at Port Huron.
And as you might suspect, Danquah, who’s also the Senate Majority Leader for the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission, often fields calls and emails from people who’ve heard, or hope to learn, that a particular local building has connections to the Underground Railroad.
Universalist Church. Photo by David Lewinski.
“The legend can get bigger than the reality,” said Danquah. “ … People get excited and want to know if their house was a stop and whether their forefathers or ancestors were involved. So they come to me and say, ‘Here’s the house.’ And I say, ‘What about a fugitive? If a fugitive didn’t stop there, it wasn’t an Underground Railroad stop.’ But also, Farmington was a farming community at that time. There were a lot of homes that had dug out basements, where they would store food or bring the animals in the cold winter months. So then I’ll ask, ‘What do you know about the original homeowners? Who was the first purchaser of the land?’ When they’re willing to do that work, we can really start to dig in and try to find out if someone may have been involved in Underground Railroad activism. … It’s often not about the home. so I say, ‘Look at the people involved. What else were they involved in besides living in this house?’”
Geneology, family connections, geography, church affiliation, modes of business, anti-slavery beliefs and more are all important factors when looking to uncover new information about the Underground Railroad. Through research, Danquah has established connections between Nathan Power and J.S.T. Milligan, a fellow abolitionist and pastor at the Southfield Reformed Presbyterian Church.
“It makes sense when you think about how fugitives moved about in these small farming communities,” said Danquah. “ … In many situations, Southfield would be a logical place to move them. Maybe a six or seven-mile move.”
Meanwhile, Nathan Power and Laura Haviland – an abolitionist and “conductor” from Lenawee County, who was related to the Powers by marriage – worked together at the Refugee Home Society, eight miles from Windsor, providing housing and educational opportunities to freedom-seekers.
“It takes people going beyond urban legends and oral history that’s passed down to locate the evidence,” said Danquah.
On March 27th, Danquah will be presenting a talk (“Freedom and Resistance: The Underground Railroad in Southeastern Michigan”) as part of the Michigan in Perspective local history conference in Sterling Heights.
“I’ll be talking about these communities out here (in southeast Wayne County and Oakland County), which don’t get as much attention, because everything is always about Detroit and its role,” said Danquah. “But Farmington was a really important pivoting point for fugitives, or groups of fugitives. … There were a lot of people involved.”