Journey Through Underground Railroad In Washtenaw County Continues

Feb 17, 2016

Earlier this month, we took a quick look into the Underground Railroad in our Southeast Michigan.  As part of Black History Month, we continue exploring stories that came out of that era in Washtenaw County.


I met up with Les Jackson at the Harwood Cemetery in Pittsfield Township, so he can tell me about his three times great-grandfather Asher Aray.  With considerable pride, Les reads part of the inscription on a sign for the historical cemetery.  

In 1853, Aray sheltered a group of 28 slaves whose flight to freedom was documented nationwide.

Snow on the ground makes it difficult to see just how many headstones are in the small private lot located at the corner of Textile and Campbell Roads.  His headstone, as well as his wife Catherine's, have fallen to the ground over time.  Asher Aray was always a free black man.  He died in 1871, and Les wants to make sure his legacy of helping slaves find freedom in Canada lives on.

For him to help slaves to escape, it was instrumental to forge our society as we know it and as precursor to the civil rights movement.

As we stand in front of the headstones, which are located in the center of the cemetery, Les’ aunt, Alice Jackson Gilbert, walks up.

Oh hey, this is my aunt Alice.  Jorge, nice to meet you.  This is my dad’s sister.

Alice is shivering, because it's 19 degrees outside.  She’s wearing a coat with fur around her neck and hat.  Alice puts the chills aside for a second to deliver a message to young people.

"They’ve got something to look forward to and to stand-up for.  This is what our forefathers had done, so let’s stand proud and make a better life for ourselves and our families.”

To help everyone see firsthand what civil rights pioneers in this area accomplished, an African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County is being built on Pontiac Trail in Ann Arbor.  Marlys Deen, who is the chairman of the board for the museum, says they need artifacts from the public such as ledgers, journals, and playbills that demonstrate their family’s history.

"This is an excellent way to show the history of African-Americans that contributed to the cultural community of Ann Arbor and to enhance education.”

Local historian Matt Siegfried is also passionate about African-American history.  So I took a walking tour with him on South Adams Street in Ypsilanti to discuss the Underground Railroad history there.

Now, we’re standing here on the corner of South Adams and Buffalo, would slaves just stand here in Ypsilanti trying to escape or how was the situation?  Well, I think the situation is at hawk, different depending on the circumstances.  We think that people always hid.  They hid when there was danger, and they didn’t hide when there was no danger.  Just right up the street, we have the home of John Anderson.  John Anderson had a wanted notice for him from Missouri where he escaped from bondage, but he lived quite openly here, even with his name.

At that same corner, as if it was his own family’s history, Matt tells me about the historic Brown Chapel AME church that still stands.

This church has been in this corner since the 1840’s, and I can guarantee that people in this corner where sitting in pews singing for their liberation, the liberation of their people.  It absolutely happened at this corner.  In fact, the windows in Brown Chapel, the memorial windows I regard as the most precious historical items in all of Ypsilanti, they commemorate the early and original parishioners of the church and founders of the church and many of the windows are named of people who escaped from bondage or fought in the civil war.

There’s no doubt that Washtenaw County has a rich history with the Underground Railroad and other African-American history.  Now it’s time for you to explore it.

If you’re interested in donating artifacts for the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County, you can visit their website for more information.  The museum is expected to open this summer.

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— Jorge Avellan is the Ann Arbor beat reporter for 89.1 WEMU News.  Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu.