I lived inside the Underground Railroad – and I didn’t even know it
College co-eds will soon descend upon campuses everywhere, and it is during this time of year that I am reminded of a seemingly serendipitous discovery about my own former college residence. What I have learned has forever changed the way I view my four years at my alma mater…
It is a low-key Saturday night. The kind that involves flannel pajamas, a hot beverage in an old, familiar mug, and a very comfortable couch. But I am actually doing research. I have a thing for history, and I had just learned that Ann Arbor was part of the Underground Railroad (who knew?) and played an integral role in how slaves were transported to Canada. Among my documents is an article which lists – in copious detail, I might add – the names of local agents involved in helping slaves move through the Underground Railroad lines that passed through Washtenaw County, Michigan. The article will serve as a guide of sorts, as it is the night before I am set to visit the homes and workplaces of said agents during a tour led by a local historian.
So here I am, nearly done with the article, when I come to James Morwick. County history sites that Morwick, an architect, was a “prime mover in the famous Underground Railroad.”
He lived at 604 East Washington.
And that’s when I nearly drop my mug: I, too, had lived at 604 East Washington.
I not only called it home for two years of my life, but I called it home during two of the best years of my life: My junior and senior years as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. As I sit, flabbergasted, I call upon the image of the house’s interior, responding to what seems to be a primal urge to put two and two together. And, suddenly, my memory complies: The inconspicuous – almost hidden – deep and narrow closet above the stairwell comes to mind first; it would have been perfect for hiding people. All I can do, it seems, is cry.
After a night of tossing and turning, I meet Danni, the local historian, the next day. I am downright nervous about the prospect of seeing my old home through the prism of this recent revelation. Add to my uneasiness that I am still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that slaves had slept and where I had once burned the midnight oil studying for a Spanish exam while eating Cap’n Crunch.
Like most Americans, I had been given a crash course in the Underground Railroad in grade school. But at the risk of sounding unintelligent, I hadn’t really envisioned what it looked like. As idiotic as it may sound, I had foolishly pictured, well, a railroad that went underground. I know, I know: If I had truly stopped to ponder this, I would have been forced to acknowledge that that image was absurd.
But now, I not only had an accurate depiction of the Underground Railroad, I learned I had lived in it.
Fast forward to the next day. It is dusk and Danni and I are traveling south on State Street. My former residence is one of the last stops on the tour. I am self-conscious that she can detect my wildly beating heart through my coat. I pick off familiar landmarks – the church on the corner; the parking structure that used to smell of hot chocolate (strange but true) – as I will myself to remain composed. Finally, she hangs a right on East Washington and we arrive at the house.
I cry. Again. Here it is, more than ten years after I had graduated, and it looks the same: A tall, nondescript colonial with tan brick on the bottom half and grey 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, an area I remember all too well. I wonder, though, if these walls could talk, what more would they reveal? Yes, once upon a time, my ancestors inhabited that space. But did one or more of my relatives?
For the first time through all of this, I am now able to accurately characterize my sentiment. It is pride. And I am completely taken aback that the institution of slavery could have anything to do with eliciting such profound gratification. Here were these slaves – running for their freedom, and their lives. They had landed at this house due to circumstances that were, for the most part, beyond their control. Then I show up at the same house nearly 150 years later…by choice. I was not only a free woman, I was pursuing an education; I could vote; I was living life on my own terms. The irony is that if these men and women could have seen me, I think they would have been proud of me.
Having this kind of connection to my past is uncharted waters. Ironically, I can only liken it to meeting a long-lost family member for the first time. It doesn’t explain everything about you, but it is a proverbial connecting of the dots, a piece of the puzzle that serves as the foundation for the bigger picture. Even if only in theory.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that I’ll ever learn more about what went on in that house. But I feel sated by what I already know: My quest to uncover the courageous lives of those who came before me led me back home.