Transcript, News clippings, Maps, etc
In 1855, George Taylor emancipated himself from slavery, crossed the Ohio River and began a harrowing four week long journey to freedom in Canada. After a few close calls and assistance from the Underground Railroad network he obtained his freedom. His story didn’t end there though, he spent the rest of his life as a free man building a family, several communities- in Michigan and Kansas- and a fascinating life that can tell us a lot about post-Civil War life for Black folks both in Birmingham and nationally.
This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.
Firstly, a note on the language we’ll be using in this episode. Our language conventions when talking about the institution of slavery and the people held in bondage in such a system are changing and for the better. We at the museum use enslaved or held in bondage instead of slave: using the adjective “enslaved” instead of the noun “slave” shows that the person was subjected to the situation of enslavement as an act by another, rather than of being an object that can be owned. Using “held in bondage” retains a person’s humanity while pointing out the position into which they were forced. We use enslaver instead of slaveowner or master: using the word “enslaver” emphasizes the action of one person forcing servitude upon another person without reinforcing any suggestion that owning another person is possible or real. We use freedom-seeker instead of fugitive: the word “fugitive” implies that the person was acting against society and were unlawful. It also suggests that enslavers were acting legally and appropriately. By using “freedom-seeker,” the emphasis is on the intent and actions of the person seeking his/her rights to freedom. Lastly, we use self-emancipation: this word gives agency to the person who decided to face extreme dangers to free themselves from bondage. However, we maintain the original language when quoting from historical sources.
Here at the museum, we were unaware of the story of George and Eliza Taylor until the spring of 2020. In the early months of the pandemic a member of the Friends of the Birmingham Museum, George Getschmann, was going through past issues of the Birmingham Eccentric newspaper looking for new folks to add to the twice-yearly tours of Greenwood Cemetery. “Did we know anything about the two formerly enslaved people buried in Greenwood Cemetery?” he asked.
As we mentioned in several previous episodes, who we do and don’t talk about reveals our own biases about who we consider “worthy” of historical consideration. I like to play a game where I’ll ask myself and guests, both adults and kids, to look at photos or historical documents and think about not just what you see, but who or what you don’t. We had, of course, always assumed that Birmingham had some sort of Black history and there were legends about houses in the area used in the Underground Railroad but there wasn’t anything in our archives about it.
George Taylor was born around 1823, his exact birthdate isn’t recorded although he gives his age as 31 in 1855 when he self-emancipated. Where he was born isn’t recorded either or who his parents were (only that a Bazil Taylor is listed as his father on his death certificate), he only gives one location for his life prior to freedom: he was enslaved by a Mrs. Greathouse in Hancock County, Kentucky. In the will for Greathouse’s husband in 1832, two enslaved people are listed on page one- a woman named Margaret and a boy named George, each valued at $275.
In this case, matching his first name to a record coming out of a particular family or location was relatively straight foward. In other cases, people who had been formerly enslaved changed their names upon finding freedom. Sometimes this was a case of hiding their identity from bounty hunters but sometimes it could be a symbolic act of breaking away from their old life and creating something new.
Mrs Greathouse wasn’t all that great and George recounted that after a lifetime of mistreatment he finally decided to flee enslavement after being publically whipped.
Hancock County KY is just across the Ohio River from Southwestern Indiana, so freedom should have come easily, right? Not quite. George’s first step was finding a way across the river and in his 1898 account of his escape, printed first in the Detroit Journal and later in the Birmingham Eccentric, George states that a brother ferried him across. Unfortunately we don’t have this man’s name or his relation to George, was he a biological brother, a close friend, a friend to freedom seekers?
The next step was even more hazardous. While slavery was illegal in Indiana, in 1855 it wasn’t really a “free” state. The 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act allowed bounty hunters free range to go into Northern free states and capture whoever they wanted as long as they had an affidavit from an enslaver stating that they had enslaved that person. The 1850 legislation wasn’t the first such act, the first was passed in 1793 and signed into law by president George Washington, but state and local governments in free states carefully worked their laws to render it all but moot until the 1850 law added more teeth and heavy fines and punishments as well as boosting the power of enslavers. Those helping freedom seekers could get a fine of up to $1,000 and six months imprisonment. Indiana shares a long border with slavery-allowing KY, which meant that many, many freedom seekers passed through its borders, which meant that bounty hunters and their allies were thick on the ground.
Previous to the 1850 act, many freedom seekers considered their flight over once they reached a friendly community in a free state, but after 1850 they had to continue onto Canada to secure their full freedom because Canada would grant them citizenship. Because of the heavy fines and punishments, the network of people helping them had to go even further underground as well.
George traveled the first two weeks of his journey alone at night, following the north star. We are unaware if he used a map or knew exactly where he was or where he was going. Many freedom seekers used just the stars to navigate north. Getting anxious about not progressing as quickly as he would have liked, he started traveling by day as well. Tired, he fell asleep under a tree and was awoken by a group of bloodhounds and bounty hunters who captured him but he was able to run away and beat back the bloodhounds and escape.
For five days after that he traveled without food and was nearing death when he encountered an abolitionist who helped him for several days. But even with help, danger was still close at hand and George was again captured and this time hauled before a judge before he could escape. According to George’s account, the judge was an abolitionist and therefore set him free. What we suspect happened here was that the judge asked for some form of proof that the bounty hunters couldn’t provide. Some freedom seekers got off in northern courts on such technicalities.
Though a judge had not permitted the bounty hunters who had captured him to drag him back into slavery, George still had to be careful to not be captured again. From here and across the border into Michigan and then through a route that took him from Niles, Michigan through Oakland County and then to Canada, he was helped by folks working on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad wasn’t a railroad, nor was it literally underground. If you are an elder millennial, like me, you might remember that folks back when the internet was just starting to become a thing in homes called it the “information superhighway”. Relating something to the main method of transportation in that time period makes it easier for folks to visualize, whether it is the flow of people or information. While previous research about the Underground Railroad emphasized the “routes” that freedom seekers took, with regularly scheduled “stops” along the way at homes, barns and businesses of abolitionists, researchers nowadays focus more on the network of stops and people.
A network can be looser and allow for much more flexibility than a preordained route. If bounty hunters or unfriendly neighbors caught wind that one family was housing freedom seekers in a particular town and began staking out the area, a fellow abolitionist in the network could then direct freedom seekers to a new path or stop. And not all abolitionists housed freedom seekers on their journey. Longtime fans of the last three months will remember that Elijah Fish in Birmingham was recognized as part of the national underground railroad network but we only know for sure that he supplied food, money and clothing to freedom seekers.
The network was secret and clandestine. To go public about your involvement or others in the network meant jail time, heavy fines and potentially the capture and re-enslavement of those you were helping. This is why we are still working to solve the puzzle of who was involved in the network and where. Many freedom seekers only spoke about their experiences in the network after the war and some never did at all. The secret nature of the network can still be seen today. Every community has urban legends or rumors about this or that old house with a false floor in the cupboard under the stairs that was used to hide people but in a lot of communities there’s a lack of concrete information about when or even if there is truly a link to the Underground Railroad Network.
George Taylor does not give any names or personal details of the folks who helped him along the way, and it’s likely that he might not have ever learned the names of those folks. But we do have one intriguing detail of his life’s story that could point to a stop he made on the Underground Railroad that led to a lifelong friendship.
After obtaining his freedom in Canada, George returned to Michigan around 1858. In the United States, It is estimated that over 100,000 freedom seekers were helped to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Canada had been a destination prior to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but after its passage the number of freedom seekers to reach Canada doubled.
A number of documented freedom seekers to returned to Michigan. Just like today, many went to where they could find good jobs and at that time, Michigan was a mostly agricultural economy. Many formerly enslaved individuals had experience working in agriculture. And many found their way back to communities that had sheltered them on their path to freedom. We think that’s why George Taylor settled in Southfield. We have evidence that he was working as a farmhand on an abolitionist’s farm in an anti-slavery community of neighbors.
In 1869 George married Eliza Dosier, who had also been formerly enslaved. We aren’t sure as to the correct pronunciation of Dosier, it could have been pronounced “dosser” or some variation thereof. Eliza came to the area after being emancipated at the end of the Civil War looking for her mother, who she had been forcibly separated from while enslaved. Eliza had been about 16 at the time and it had been 22 years since the last time she saw her.
Most families who had been enslaved had similar stories of spouses, parents, children and siblings ripped away on the auction block and after the war many placed ads trying to find friends and family members. Eliza and her mother, Matilda Cason, were among the lucky ones who found each other. And they were able to be with each other until Matilda’s death in 1880.
We don’t know how Matilda came to Royal Oak or how her daughter came to look for her there. There are many parts of the story that we are still trying to uncover.
There’s another mystery connected to the Taylors. Before and after the Civil War you can notice something curious in the census records of Black families in the Oakland County area- unrelated minor children. Some minors could have been freedom seekers and may have found their way into adopted or foster families. Or, after the war, many formerly enslaved children who had been separated from family came North seeking friends or family members. Both the Taylor and Cason families show minor unrelated children in census records as do other Black families in the area.
George and Eliza married when both were in their mid-40s. And like many folks today do they adopted a child. Clara Blevins Taylor was born in 1876 in the Birmingham area to a woman named Julia Blevens. Julia was herself the daughter of an enslaved woman and her enslaver.
Julia Blevens’ early life is a bit of a mystery still. At 12 she and a younger brother show up in Royal Oak in 1860 in the household with the woman that we presume to be her mother, Martha White Harris, but they weren’t there when Martha married several years before then. Were they living apart? Had they been separated previously, during enslavement? At this time, we are unsure.
When Julia had Clara in her 20s she was unmarried and may have given Clara to the Taylors to adopt because she was a working women and was only able to support herself.. As previously mentioned in other episodes there were few legal jobs for women in the mid-to –late 1800s that would allow them to support a family on their own, no matter what race a woman was. And there were few legal protections for workers, meaning that employers could fire a woman that they believed was of insufficient “moral character”. After Clara’s adoption, we are not sure if she and her biological mother had any further contact.
In 1876, George Taylor went to Kansas with the Rev. James Milligan’s family to help them move and found a church. Asking a friend to help you move to the next city over today is a big ask and asking your friend to help you move across the country in 1881? We are talking weeks’ worth of train journeys, not to mention having to go to Kansas.
Our best theory? George might have owed Milligan one and they perhaps were close after Milligan sheltered a freedom-seeking George in his Southfield church in 1855 and possibly helped secure him employment when he returned later as a free man.
Why did just George go, leaving Eliza and Clara? It could be that Eliza did not want to be separated from her mother. Once Matilda died in 1880, George comes back to Michigan and the whole family goes to Kansas. The church Milligan founded in Kansas still has a clock that George bought and donated to them. We let them know that we call dibs if they ever don’t want it anymore.
In 1893, James Milligan retired and returned to PA where he was originally from and a local Kansas paper reported that George, Eliza and Clara have put their farm up for rent as they were returning to Detroit for a year due to George’s health. George and Eliza would have been around their 70s at this time. We don’t know why they ended up staying and buying property in Birmingham, but family connections probably have played a part. Clara’s biological family, the Harrises were nearby .Additionally, George and Eliza had lived and worked in the area for decades previously and probably had old coworkers and friends living nearby.
They bought property on what is now Stanley Street in Birmingham, although their home no longer survives. Where their property exactly was was a mystery for awhile. We were going off of census records and were looking for them on another street entirely because the census listings right before theirs was for a family several streets over. But we should have first looked at who was the census taker was. We’ll talk about John Allen Bigelow in another episode but let’s just say for right now that the man was a bit of a happy-go-lucky himbo who marched to the beat of his own drum, and that influenced how he conducted the census. Bigelow may have been using the census as an excuse to just visit with his friends and once we understood that, we realized that we couldn’t rely on him to be walking down the street in a straight line, like he was supposed to be doing. You had one job, Bigelow.
The Taylors became the first Black landowners in Birmingham and they were heavily involved in the first Presbyterian Church. The Birmingham that the Taylors knew, both before and after Kansas was a small rural village, albeit one that already had a reputation for good schools, valuable real estate and decent shopping.
In 1898, when she was 21, Clara married Joseph Farmer in Birmingham. This would connect the Taylor’s to the Farmer Family, another prominent Black family in the area who also had connections to the Cason and Harris Family. I’m not even going to try to get into the genealogy here, because it’s a lot. We spell it out in a few virtual exhibits on our website and you can look up the family trees we’ve put together on Ancestry.
George passed away in 1901, Eliza a short 6 months later in 1902, and both were buried in Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery. Both graves were unmarked and several years ago we launched a fundraiser to erect a monument at their graves. We raised well over the amount we were originally seeking and within the next several months it will go up at Greenwood. The inscription will read “Birn into Slavery, died free in Birmingham”
In the obituaries published in the Birmingham Eccentric newspaper, both George and Eliza were said to be very well respected in the community and George’s included that he was known as “Uncle George” to the village’s residents. While Birmingham and Oakland County were not a perfect anti-racist paradise (we’ll talk about one of Birmingham’s biggest haters in a later episode) it seems as though the Black folks in the community, like the Taylors, were comfortable setting down roots, having families, joining churches and buying property in the village. We also haven’t found any evidence of segregation at this time. The Taylors attended church, shopped for groceries and sent their child to the same school that their white neighbors did.
George and Eliza Taylor have a far-reaching legacy, that is informing research throughout Oakland county. In our own research about the Taylors and their lives we unearthed the abolitionists Elijah Fish and the Rev Milligan, which lead to further identities and stories. The Birmingham Museum is currently working on a grant funded project with other historical societies and museums in Oakland County to find these stories and to connect them together to get a better picture of the Underground Railroad in Oakland County. At the end of the project this year we’ll have a traveling exhibit, educational resources for schools, digital content with a website and possibly a few podcast episodes and much more. Stay tuned.
If your family has connections to the Oakland County Underground Railroad Network, we’d love to hear your family’s story. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have a lot of further information about the Taylor family, as well as other local Black families on our website. You can read George’s description of his journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad, he and Eliza’s obituaries, see maps of where their property in Birmingham was and photos of various family members on our website, see the link in the shownotes.
Join us next week when we examine the life of Rhoda Bingham Daniels, whose grandfather, a famous puritan minister, wrote her some truly unhinged letters about how babies are born evil and so it was a good thing her’s died. It’s a story of religion, family, loss and why nobody likes the Puritans.
I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum, our amazing volunteers and the descendants of the Taylor family.
Julia Blevens in her 20s and her daughter, Clara Taylor c. 1910