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Vandalia and Cassopolis Michigan Honor History of Underground Railroad

Compiled by Kim Cekola

21c3 Asset: Multiculturalism

Location: Southwestern Michigan
Population: Cassopolis, 1,740; Vandalia, 429

Underground Railroad

Sanctuary and Deliverance depicts four scenes in the Kentucky Raid: slaves crossing the Ohio River at night; Kentucky raiders attempted to recapture the family; the mob of white farmers, Quakers, and free blacks who blocked the raiders; and the Cass County Courthouse where the raiders were detained, giving the escaped slaves time to make their way to freedom in Canada.

Unless you’re from Southwest Michigan, you probably haven’t heard of Vandalia and Cassopolis. Would it surprise you to learn that these two Cass County villages were important locations on the Underground Railroad, and instrumental in getting 1,500 escaped slaves to safety and freedom in Canada? Not only that, but Quaker abolitionists helped freed slaves get established by arranging for them to clear and work 5- and 10-acre plots, leading to one of the largest African–American settlements in the U.S.

Cass County is laying claim to its place in history as a force on the Underground Railroad. Area abolitionists sacrificed their safety to aid slaves escaping from slavery, and helped build a community with free blacks who migrated to the area. Today, the racial makeup of Vandalia is 47.55 percent African American, and Cassopolis is 32.59 percent African American. With its history of welcoming and integrating freed slaves, Cass County pioneered the concept of diversity. The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County is bringing much-deserved attention to this time in history. Here is their story.

The Underground Railroad in Cass County

The Underground Railroad in Cass County operated through cooperation, respect, and mutual trust among Quakers, free blacks, and other abolitionists. The interdependency of these groups created a unique environment that “helped minimize racism, promote cooperation between the races, and create an African–American community unique to the North.”

Underground Railroad

The Vandalia Underground Railroad days kicked off in July 2010. Village President Beverly Young is pictured.

Several Quaker families migrated from Wayne, IN to Cass County and formed ‘The Young’s Prairie Anti-Slavery Meeting of Quakers’ in 1843. They created the “Quaker Line” of Underground Railroad, and Cass County became a place of refuge for fugitives from all over the South. The village of Vandalia was unique—two main branches of the Underground Railroad, the “Quaker Line” and the “Illinois Line,” met there. Carol Bainbridge of the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County told the Cassopolis Vigilant, “Everyone asks, ‘where’s Vandalia?’ I tell them that Vandalia may be a little village but it has a huge, huge, important history. The history of this area, especially this little village, impacted this entire country.” (The Cassopolis Vigilant, July 15, 2010)

The Underground Railroad was a network of “stations” (homes, carriage houses, barns, etc.) owned by Quaker abolitionists as well as freed black men and women and other sympathizers. The journey to Canada was long and difficult—fugitives traveled at night to avoid being seen and were given refuge at safe locations during daylight hours. Between 1842 and 1847, a colony of fugitives developed, residing in small cabins on Quaker-owned land. The settlement, called “Ramptown” for the wild ramp onions growing there, as well as other Quaker homes, were targets of the infamous “Kentucky Raid” of 1847.

The Kentucky Raid of 1847

In the spring of 1847, 12 slaves left Boone and Kenton counties in Kentucky and made their way north, finding sanctuary in Cass County. Soon after, slave hunters from Kentucky arrived in an attempt to capture them. Violence was narrowly avoided and the slave owners were persuaded to settle the matter lawfully, in court. At the Cass County Courthouse, what transpired was history: the slave owners were charged with trespassing, kidnapping, and assault. The judge detained the Kentucky slavecatchers, allowing the fugitive slaves to escape to Canada. Backlash against the historic case, the first in which a black man testified against a white man in a court of law, led to the passage of a much more stringent Fugitive Slave Act and ultimately, the start of the Civil War.

Sanctuary and Deliverance in Cassopolis

Underground Railroad

The Cass County Courthouse.

Inspired by their unique place in history, the Minority Coalition of Cass County put together a 60 foot outdoor mural project to tell the story of the Kentucky Raid. Located on a building in downtown Cassopolis, the mural, called Sanctuary and Deliverance, depicts the historic clash leading up to the Civil War and freedom for all slaves. The mural was unveiled on October 23, 2010. Deanda Johnson, regional coordinator for the National Underground Railroad, told the onlookers, “It’s an important historical event that had national implications. You guys played a part in the starting of the Civil War.” (South Bend Tribune, October 28, 2010). The mural was funded by a $15,000 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. Cassopolis artist and Minority Coalition member Ruth Andrews designed the mural.

Underground Railroad Days in Vandalia

To celebrate the village’s heritage, Vandalia Public Works Director Bill Ayers conceived the celebration “Underground Railroad Days” in Vandalia. The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County (URSCC) anchored several tents that told the story of the Underground Railroad in Vandalia and the surrounding area. The Minority Coalition of Cass County provided information on the Sanctuary and Deliverance mural in Cassopolis, and the URSCC guided tours of Underground Railroad sites up and down M-60. The tours were packed—people were amazed at the stories of Ramptown, the Kentucky Raid, and the courage and compassion of the Quakers and African Americans who participated. Tragically, Bill Ayers passed away before the July event occurred; the village commemorated the beloved employee with a stone memorial.

Then and Now

Many African–American families were free long before migration to Cass County, and have documented their history. They founded an anti-slavery society and engaged in anti-slavery activism, playing a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad and the Kentucky Raid. Descendents of these families still reside in the area.

“Categorically, people do not know their history,” Cathy LaPointe, also a member of the URSCC, remarked to the Cassopolis Vigilant (July 15, 2010). “There’s a real legacy of freedom. But people don’t know about it. They don’t talk about it in schools. People should be proud of what happened here.”

Sources: Underground Railroad Society of Cass County Michigan; Marty Kaszar, Project Director, Kentucky Raid Mural Project

More?

Underground Railroad Society of Cass County, Michigan

Cassopolis mural


Kim Cekola is research specialist and publications editor for the League. You may contact her at 734-669-6321 or kcekola@mml.org.

 

 

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