By DAVID GREEN
A concealed trap door leading to the crawl space under the house.
A false wall creating a secret hiding space.
A quilt with a particular pattern hanging in the yard as a sign.
Station by station, the Underground Railroad led slaves from the South to freedom in Canada. Michigan played a key role in the secretive, dangerous process, and Lenawee County, as one of the gateways into the state, was at the forefront.
“The history is out there,” says political science professor Kimberley Davis. “It’s in memories, in shoe boxes, in libraries, but we need help uncovering it.”
Davis has hit upon a unique way to get the job done. She intends to train volunteer squads of people interested in local history. Armed with digital cameras and tape recorders, portable scanners and interview techniques, the community researchers will head out to track down artifacts and stories from an extraordinary period of American history.
Davis is establishing the project in her home area—Lenawee County—before taking the model out across the state. Traces of the Underground Railroad remain, from the southern border towns to communities in the Upper Peninsula.
“We’re sort of creating a modern-day Underground Railroad, building these networks,” Davis said.
All information collected will be fed into a web site known as the Terminus Underground Railroad Digital Archive. Once the web site is launched, it’s expected to become the most advanced database of its kind, offering the most comprehensive repository of information available.
From the very beginning of the project, Davis said, the idea was to train community members to collect information. She and others have devised a system that can make it work.
“It’s portable, accessible and easy to use—for the convenience of the people in the community, who are our researchers.”
Davis aims to begin the work by organizing town meetings in Lenawee County communities and townships. Historical society members are likely candidates for the project, but anyone is welcome to give it a try.
Training sessions will teach volunteers how to operate a laptop computer for data storage, a scanner to copy old letters or other documents, and a digital camera to record images of documents too fragile to handle. Use of a digital tape recorder will also be included. All the equipment will fit into a backpack for easy portability.
The researchers will also be trained in interviewing techniques before heading out into the field to track down stories of the past.
Davis sees this method as the quickest way to gather information, and there is some urgency in her work.
“We need to collect data quickly since older people are passing on and buildings are destroyed through development,” she said.
The citizen researchers will also be trained to enter data into the web site. From oral history to photos of buildings, residents from all parts of Michigan can play a role in developing the digital archive.
“It’s a state-wide story and it’s a national story,” Davis said.
And a large part of the tale can come from Lenawee County.
“Lenawee County was an important part of the state,” she said. “It was a hotbed of activity in the Underground Railroad.
“We have a lot of stories from this area, but I know by no means it’s a complete story. We need people in the community to help us complete it.”
Making the decision to hide fugitive slaves didn’t always come easily. Slaves were property, after all, and concealing stolen property was against the law.
Participation in the Underground Railroad often divided family and friends, said Kimberley Davis, director of Adrian College’s Sojourner Truth Technical Training Center. There are cases where a husband was a slave-holder and his wife secretly aided in their escape.
A kinship grew among those who helped runaways.
“Many different groups came together to help,” Davis said. “They did it because of what they believed in. They crossed all kinds of boundaries.”
There were often surprises among the ranks of the abolitionists—those who wanted an end to slavery. Supporters of the Underground Railroad to freedom went well beyond Quaker congregations and often included the local sheriff or the mayor of a community.
Blacks, whites and the Native American population all came together in the effort. Studying the history of the movement could offer a good model for conflict resolution, Davis said.
“It’s such a powerful story and a powerful lesson,” she said.
It was also a secret operation, and that’s where documentation a century and a half later becomes difficult.– June 12, 2002