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Generations of African-Americans Find Freedom In SW Michigan Village

Underground Railroad, Vandalia, wagon
Reginald Hardwick
The model of a wagon that would have been used to help slaves escape to freedom in Michigan. It’s sits in a carriage house in Vandalia. ";

The Underground Railroad was a salvation from unrelenting violence forced upon millions of African-Americans since 1619. A southwest Michigan community served as a stop on the way to freedom.

Along Michigan Highway 60, a few miles north of the Indiana border, a large water tower welcomes you to the village of Vandalia. During slavery, arrival here as a black person meant a chance at freedom.

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of paths that lead enslaved blacks out of the south to slave free states and Canada.       

Cathy LaPointe is treasurer of the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County.  I met her at the bottom floor of a 3-story carriage house which dates back to the 1850’s.

LaPointe said men, women and children seeking freedom from slavery lay underneath sacks of food in a false spot of a horse-drawn wagon. They rode for miles along bumpy, unpaved roads until arrival at the carriage house. Once the door closed on the first floor, they quietly went up ladders to shelter on the second and third floors.

LaPointe said some African-Americans used Vandalia as a resting point on the journey across Michigan to freedom in Canada. But many others put down roots in a nearby area known as Ramptown.

"A lot of people had relatives here. They were staying with relatives, staying in ramptown; and farms. They had their own farms," said LaPointe.

Underground Railroad, Vandalia
Credit Reginald Hardwick / WKAR-MSU
Historical marker in Vandalia.

The white Quaker community farmed land side by side with African-Americans. But it wasn’t a happily ever after story.  LaPointe says plantation owners considered slaves property not people.

"They sent a spy up here to interview every Quaker; who got to know where all the slaves were staying. They knew everything about this area because they knew the Quakers were sheltering slaves," said LaPointe. 

In August of 1847, a group of Kentucky slave catchers arrived. The Vandalia community – black and white – responded with resistance.

"So they raided all these farms but the alarm went out and a lot of the nearby farmers and everything surrounded them and they said you’re not taking these people back," said LaPointe.

After convincing them to go to court, a judge sent the slave catchers back to Kentucky empty handed. But some of the Quakers also paid a price.

"The court costs are really high, a couple of Quakers and others had to sell their farms and move," said LaPointe.

Nearly two centuries after the Kentucky raid, 300 black and white descendants of Vandalia’s families still live in the village.

Dave Weatherspoon is a professor at the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University. He’s also a Vandalia native.

"So they [Quakers] took a serious stand and that’s risking it all for your fellow man," said Weatherspoon. 

His family has lived in the area since the 1800’s. He said the white farmers of this area were unique in helping African-Americans create self-sufficient communities at a time when it was illegal for blacks to own land.

"And that allowing people to work 5 to 10 acres of their own land," said Weatherspoon. "And there was no you know, indentured servant to servitude or anything that you had to pay. You just had to clear the land you were able to work it."

Every summer, residents gather for Underground Railroad Days, an annual festival where you can retrace the steps of freedom seekers and the people who helped them. Vandalia native Betty Nichols sells art during the event and shares the area’s history with visitors.

"My community is very rich and has very strong heritage and more people should know about it," said Nichols. "I’ve met people from Chicago area, the suburbs of Chicago, suburbs of Detroit."

Homes, churches, cemeteries – 20 sites in all – are preserved in and around Vandalia. It’s a heritage of early white and black settlers in southwest Michigan who built a community together. 

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