OWOSSO — While traveling routes of the Underground Railroad to escape from slavery, African-Americans found safety in Michigan — and Shiawassee County — on their way to Canada.
“Michigan was both a path to settlement and a gateway to Canada,” said Carol Mull, Michigan Freedom Trail chairperson and author of “The Underground Railroad of Michigan.”
The Underground Railroad was an organized program to help escaping slaves travel from the southern states to Canada.
“Because Canada, a country that did not allow slavery, was very close to Michigan, Michiganders played an important role in making the Underground Railroad successful,” the Detroit Opera House website, www.motopera.org states. “Except for handbills and newspaper ads that were written in code, the organization’s participation and how it worked was secret.”
The Underground Railroad began about 1820, according to the Detroit Opera House’s website.
The state of Michigan website, www.michigan.gov, states the first antislavery society began in Kalamazoo in 1837, the same year Michigan became the nation’s 26th state.
The Emancipation Proclamation at the start of 1863 granted freedom to all people held as slaves within a state or part of a state in rebellion against the United States, Mull said.
“The Civil War was kind of the end of people being afraid of hiding,” Mull said.
Owosso had a hand in making history during this time, and a house located at 400 W. Main St. served as a “station” for the Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War, according to the book “Owosso, Michigan A to Z” by the late Helen Harrelson, which was published in 1993.
“Stations” were planned stops that included churches, homes or any other safe place for people escaping slavery to hide, the Detroit Opera House website states.
In Harrelson’s book, the local legend relates Chris (Sally) Haller ran Owosso’s Underground Railroad “station” from the house at the northwest corner of Main and John (now Curwood Castle Drive) streets.
But as research by Harrelson showed in her book, the Hallers did not move into the house at the northwest corner of Main and John streets until 1867, which was two years after the Civil War ended.
In fact, the couple did not even move to Owosso from Gasport, N.Y. until 1865, Harrelson’s book states.
Although the Hallers did not run the house as a “station” for people escaping from slavery, the house was a “station,” most likely run by Aaron and Maria Hinckley, who lived in the house before and during the Civil War.
Harrelson states in her book that she met with Clara Marie Sayles, the granddaughter of Chris and Sally Haller, to gather more information on the house at the corner of Main and John streets, and found Sayles’ memory of the house included knowledge of a secret door into the attic that was accessible only by climbing a pear tree at the back of the house.
While Shiawassee County was not a key place for people escaping from slavery to travel, Michigan still held a big part of the escape routes.
Detroit held a big population in African-Americans and “offered a chance for people to mingle with the crowd,” Mull said.
Mull said by 1840 Michigan had an anti-slavery newspaper in Ann Arbor called the Signal of Liberty.
Articles from the newspaper can be viewed at signalofliberty.aadl.org, and show that another local resident played a part in the nation’s history.
Dr. John B. Barnes, whom Mull states in her book was known as the “director of the Underground Railroad,” moved to Owosso in 1842 and practiced medicine at his office located at Washington and Water streets, according to Harrelson’s book.
Barnes often was published in the Signal of Liberty newspaper.
“It is believed that Michigan had more than 200 stations on the Underground Railroad,” the Detroit Opera House states. “The Underground Railroad went out of operation about Dec. 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was signed into law.”
“I think this heritage has been overlooked for a long time,” Mull said.
Mull asked that anyone who has information about the Underground Railroad in Michigan to contact her through her website, www.carolmull.com.
“There’s still more out there for us to learn about,” Mull said. “Every addition to this story will give us a better understanding to the whole story.”