UGRR Detroit Alternate: Part 2

February 9, 2012


This is the second in a series of four special posts about the new Detroit Alternate of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR). The alternate follows a meandering route covered by two map sections, from Oberlin, Ohio, to Owen Sound, Ontario. Section 1 of the Detroit Alternate heads northwest from Oberlin, curving around the west end of Lake Erie as it continues into Michigan, passes through Detroit, and enters Ontario, ending in the town of Sombra after skirting the western and northern shores of Lake St. Clair. The route is rich with Underground Railroad history.

In 1913, an instructor at Ypsilanti's Michigan State Normal College (today’s Eastern Michigan University) by the name of Mary A. Goddard researched and wrote a paper on the Underground Railroad which at that time had been shut down for less than fifty years. According to writer James Mann, Goddard penned these words about the Railroad: “Even the children of the families of those connected with it knew little of what was actually going on about them. The success of the institution depended on secrecy. So it happened that many of the leading workers died without having told even their children much, if anything, about their activities in the Underground Railroad. Some who may yet be living are unknown, and it is not easy to search them out. In these investigations many people have been visited, but few have been able to give any information, though they were living in Ypsilanti at the time when the work of the Railroad was at its height.”

One individual Goddard did glean information from was Anna McCoy, a daughter of former Kentucky slave George McCoy, who became a tobacco farmer and purveyor of cigars in the Ypsilanti area. Mrs. McCoy (she apparently married an unrelated man sharing her last name) recalled her mother on certain occasions baking large batches of bread, cooking hams, and putting the children to bed early on those particular evenings. The following day, her father would always make a trip, and mysteriously, little would be left of her mother’s feast makings. As she grew older, Mrs. McCoy learned what was going on: Her father was acting as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, hiding freedom seekers under boxes of cigars in a false bottom of his wagon, and delivering them to a man in nearby Wyandotte. This man, a Mr. Bush, owned a boat called the Pearl, aboard which he would ferry the escaped slaves across the Detroit River to Canada. (Incidentally, Elijah McCoy, one of Anna’s eleven siblings, became an inventor of some note.)

What remains of the Starkweather Homestead, where George McCoy farmed, is a large Greek Revival home and the surrounding lot. It’s on the 1200 block of Huron River Drive in Ypsilanti, near the campus of Eastern Michigan University. Cyclists passing through can arrange to take a “Journey to Freedom” tour that visits this and other local sites related to the Underground Railroad, conducted by the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.

Detroit, likewise, is rich with shadowy lore of the Underground Railroad. The city was the last overland stop for many freedom seekers as it is situated just across the Detroit River from Canada, and liberation for escaped slaves. The theme coalesces at the Underground Railroad Living Museum, located in the historic First Congregational Church at 33 East Forest Avenue. An ongoing effort is underway there aimed at capturing the most complete picture possible of the area’s Underground Railroad activities by way of artifacts, manuscripts, and letters.

Another must-see in Motor City U.S.A. is The Gateway to Freedom, one of a pair of monuments -- the other stands across the river in Windsor, Ontario -- created by African American sculptor Edward Dwight and installed in 2001. Located along the RiverWalk at Hart Plaza, the sculpture is of several African Americans, one of them pointing the way to freedom across the Detroit River.

Though Detroit has suffered an out-migration that began around 1950, and has accelerated over the past decade, the city grew rapidly during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1910, the black population of Detroit stood at just over 5,700; by 1930, that number had mushroomed to 120,000. The African Americans flooding into Detroit were part of the “Great Migration,” in which an estimated one million blacks flocked to Northern cities from the South. The rapid growth was due largely to the industrial boom, in Detroit’s case, most notably the boom of the automobile industry. Not surprisingly, African Americans have had a tremendous influence on Detroit's culture.  Notwithstanding the iconic ’57 Chevy and the 1968 World Series-winning Tigers, nothing says “Detroit” like the Motown sound that revved up the country and the world throughout the 1960s and ’70s (and today, thanks to oldies radio).

The brilliance of America’s popular-music tapestry would be a shade or two diminished had Berry Gordy Jr. not set up a recording studio in 1959 in his two-family flat at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. You can visit the home, christened “Hitsville, USA” by Gordy, which now houses the nonprofit Motown Museum. There you will pay homage to such recording greats as Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Gladys Knight, the Jackson Five, and so many others who cut their melodious and infectiously soulful tracks in Gordy’s “Studio A.”

The museum was founded in 1985 by the recently deceased Esther Gordy Edwards, Berry’s older sister and longtime Motown Corp. executive, to “preserve the legacy of Motown Record Corporation and to educate and motivate people, especially youth, through exhibitions and programs that promote the values of vision, creativity, and entrepreneurship.”


Image by Adventure Cycling Association


This is the second of four in a series of Guest Posts about the Detroit Alternate of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR) by Michael McCoy, Adventure Cycling's media specialist. Mac, who wrote the Field Notes for the UGRR -- from which these posts are adapted -- also compiles the organization's twice-monthly e-newsletter Bike Bits and organizes the Bike Overnights program. Previously, from March 2009 through January 2012, Mac posted weekly at Biking Without Borders.


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