This Old House
The Underground Railroad and me
by Courtney Conover
From the April, 2010 issue
It's one of those quintessentially low-key Saturday nights, the kind that involves flannel pajamas and a very comfortable couch. I'm reading an old Ann Arbor Observer article that lists local participants in the Underground Railroad. I'm technically working--preparing for a Sunday tour of sites connected to the secret network that helped escaped slaves reach freedom in Canada.
Near the end of the article, I come across James Morwick, architect and prime mover in the Underground Railroad. He lived at 604 East Washington.
I put down the article, pierced by a powerful surge of adrenaline. My eyes tear up.
I lived at 604 East Washington. I called it home during two of the best years of my life: my junior and senior years at the U-M. I toss and turn all night, trying to wrap my mind around the reality of slavery and its connection to the apartment where I once burned the midnight oil studying for a Spanish exam while consuming Cap'n Crunch.
Like most Americans, I got a crash course in the Underground Railroad in grade school. But as idiotic as it may sound, I had foolishly pictured, well, a railroad that went underground. I know, I know: that image was absurd. But, like many African Americans I know, I thought about the Underground Railroad in the abstract: I knew it existed, but I had never really thought about it. Soaked in the stench of slavery, the Underground Railroad is easy to ignore. But that changes when you realized you've lived in it.
The next morning, Deborah Meadows meets me in the parking lot of Washtenaw Community College. She greets me warmly as I climb into her front seat. Our first stop is John Geddes's home on East Huron River Drive. The gray country-style colonial is still a private residence. Meadows eases onto the shoulder, puts on her flashers, takes a deep breath, and begins. Speaking with an effortless vigor that's indicative of her passion for history, she tells me
that "Uncle John" Geddes, a justice of the peace, served as supervisor of Ann Arbor Township and was elected to the state legislature in 1840. He was also considered by many to be a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It's said that his home had a hidden second cellar, where he harbored escaped slaves under loose floorboards in the parlor. I shake my head and crane my neck to get a better look at the rest of the house as Deborah drives off slowly.
We proceed to other sites, including the Anson Brown Building (now the St. Vincent de Paul store) on Broadway. In 1841, the publishing office of Signal of Liberty, the weekly newspaper of the Anti-Slavery Party of Michigan, stood across the street. The homes of the newspaper's founder, Guy Beckley, and his brother and fellow activist Josiah are nearby on Pontiac Trail.
We make our way through another half-dozen stops, and it is dusk by the time we arrive at the Morwick house. It looks the same: tall and nondescript with tan fake stone on the bottom half and gray aluminum siding on the top half. Like most student rentals, the tiny lawn is sparse and worn. My eyes remain fixed on the second level, where I lived. If these walls could talk, what would they reveal? Did one or more of my ancestors pass through here?
And now, for the first time, I can accurately characterize my feelings about this. They are pride and--though I am completely taken aback to realize it--profound satisfaction. The slaves James Morwick helped were running for their freedom--and their lives. They were connected to this house due to circumstances beyond their control. But nearly 150 years later, I had found my way to the same house by choice. I was not only a free woman--I was pursuing an education, I could vote, I was living life on my terms. If these men and women could have seen me, what would they have said?
I think they would have been proud of me.
I can only liken my experience to meeting a long-lost family member for the first time: it doesn't explain everything about you, but it is a corner piece of the puzzle that lets you see the bigger picture.
Weeks later, the house is still in the forefront of my mind. I call Grace Shackman, the writer of the article. She tells me her daughter, Leah, also lived at 604 East Washington when she was an undergraduate.
Like me, Grace learned of the Underground Railroad connection years after her daughter lived there. She found Morwick's name in the History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, a compilation published by Charles C. Chapman in 1881. She then found his address by poring over old city directories. But she cautions: we don't know anything about any activity in any house because it was illegal. Grace likens reconstructing the Underground Railroad to putting together a jigsaw puzzle when some pieces are missing and the remaining pieces can be put together in several different ways. What we do know is that, whether or not slaves slept under its roof, someone who lived there helped pave the way for them to be free.
It is highly unlikely that I'll ever learn more about what went on in that house in relation to the Underground Railroad. But I am pacified by what I already know. My quest to retrace the steps of my ancestors has led me back home.
[Originally published in April, 2010.]
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