Sunday, February 8, 2015

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD AND ME

Although I made this discovery in 2009, I still can't believe it.

Because it literally blows my mind every single time I stop and think about it.

I mean, really.

Wouldn't it blow your mind, too, if you found out that slaves once slept where you danced around in your underwear, studied for mid-term exams, and devoured bowls of Cap’n Crunch while watching 90210?

So let me go back to the beginning and how this all started.

During my junior and senior years as an undergrad student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I lived in a studio apartment that was located inside 604 East Washington, a large, old house behind the Michigan Theater, on the fringes of central campus.

One low-key Saturday night -- ten years after I had moved out -- I'm relaxing on my living room couch, doing research for an article I had been summoned to write for the Ann Arbor Observer.

I had just learned that the city of Ann Arbor was part of the Underground Railroad (who knew?) and that it had played an integral role in how slaves were transported to Canada. My article would, in part, focus on a local woman, Danni, who, after studying the landscape and connecting the proverbial dots for years, now gives an Underground Railroad tour through Ann Arbor.

But more on that in a minute.

I'm poring over an article which lists the names of local agents (people) involved in helping slaves move through the Underground Railroad lines that passed through Washtenaw County, Michigan, the county Ann Arbor resides in. 

It is, in fact, the night before I am scheduled to experience Danni's tour.

So, I'm 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 built and lived at...wait for it...Wait. For. It...

604 East Washington.

And that’s when I nearly drop the coffee mug I am drinking from.

And cry.

I not only called 604 East Washington home for two years of my life, but I called it home during two of the best years of my life at the University of Michigan:



As I sit, flabbergasted, my mind pulls up the image of the house’s interior, responding to what seems to be a primal urge to put two and two together. 

The very first thing I think of is the inconspicuous – almost hidden – deep and narrow closet above the stairwell: It would have been perfect for hiding people

I cry some more.After a night of tossing and turning, I meet Danni the next day. 

I am so nervous, I cannot even think straight.

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. 

But, come to find, I not only had an accurate depiction of the Underground Railroad, I had just learned that I had lived in it.

Fast forward to 6 p.m. 

It is dusk and Danni, my husband Scott, and I are traveling south on State Street, and my former residence is one of the last stops on the tour. 

I am self-conscious that Danni 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), and, finally, she hangs a right on East Washington and we arrive at the house.

I cry. 

Again. 

Here it is, ten years after I had graduated, and the house looks even better than I had remembered, thanks to renovations.

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 also?

For the first time through all of this, I am now able to accurately characterize precisely how I feel. 

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   who 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. 

And I think that if these men and women could have seen me now, 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's the missing piece of a 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.   




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10 comments:

  1. What a beautiful story! I'm feeling how proud you are as I read it!!!

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    1. Hi, Mari! Thank you so much. I *still* can't believe this all happened...

      I've really been enjoying the recipes on your blog lately! YUM-O! Keep it up!

      xo

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  2. Wow---our history! I can somewhat understand because we also live in area in Delaware that was also a route for the Underground Railroad, however our home doesn't sit directly on it. There are a lot of "safe houses" around, there is actually one right down the street - totally awesome.

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    1. Oh, Antionette, then you totally understand. I know you "get" how huge this revelation was/still is for me...

      I will never, EVER look at that home -- or my time in it -- the same way again...

      Thank you so much for stopping by to share your words -- and also for leaving such kind words under my YouTube blow-out video! I just saw it today, and I simply wanted to say thank you.

      xo

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  3. Hi Courtney - I filed this article in my "read" pile because I knew I wanted to give it the time to read and digest and not just quickly scan... and waited for a time when I could actually read it. And you brought a few tears to my eyes just thinking about where we have been and where we have come as a society. Your story is so frickin cool I can't even stand it. Thank you for sharing, and hopefully you can take your kids there some day and tell them all about it. Hugs, Holly

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    1. Thanks so, SO much, Holly. I truly appreciate the time you took to read this, as this particular story is unique for obvious reasons. It is just so emotional for me. And yes, you can bet that I will share this with K and S one day. Frankly, I still can't believe this discovery...

      Have a great weekend, Holly, and thank you, again.

      xo

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  4. This is such an amazing story! I lived for a short time in a house in Connecticut that was part of the Underground Railroad - it had a tunnel to the grocery store across the street at one point - but as I was only two and so - for obvious reasons - I didn't appreciate it. I wish I could remember it better now... for a variety of reasons.

    I think the most poignant part of your story, for me, is the juxtaposition of your situation - free, able to vote, getting an education... how amazing that you found out about the history of the house, all those years later!

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    1. Dakota! I'm so sorry! I am just now seeing your comment!!!

      Believe it or not, a person who lived in this house -- at the exact same time I did! -- was just led to this post after googling images of this house. (Shaking my head at the power of the Interwebs right now, but I digress...) Anyhow, her comment is below yours...

      Thanks, again, for sharing your comment here (a grocery store??? WOW.)

      Again, thank you.

      xo

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  5. Courtney,
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I happened upon your blog tonight while looking up images of the house at 604 E Washington to show my 14 year old son. I googled the address, hoping to find pictures of the inside of the apartments, and instead I found this. I, too, lived in the house in college. As-a-matter-of-fact, I was your neighbor. I lived in the 3 bedroom apartment on the 2nd level when you lived there. It was so neat to read the history of the house I lived in for two years and to be able to share it with my kids.

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    1. Oh my God, Jessica. Hello, and welcome! The power of the Internet...it's quite amazing, isn't it?

      Thank you for your kind words -- and for leaving your comment.

      I, too, wish to share my experience in that house with my own kids one day. (They are 1 and 3, so I've got a few years yet...)

      I write about an eclectic mix of things here on this blog, and you can also find me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thebrowngirlwithlonghair) and Instagram at @officialcourtneyconover.

      Thanks, again, Jessica, and GO BLUE!

      xo

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