BIRMINGHAM, Mich. (WOOD) — To mark the 200th birthday of legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, the National Park Service has added 16 more locations to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, including one in Michigan.
Eleven states are represented in the new 16 sites, including three sites in Maryland and two in Louisiana. In metro Detroit, the Birmingham Museum applied for the Greenwood Cemetery to be recognized inside the federal network.
“Like Harriet Tubman, the freedom seekers and allies highlighted in each Network to Freedom listing remind us of what can be accomplished when people take action against injustice,” said Diane Miller, who leads the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. “Each listing holds a unique part of the Underground Railroad story, and we look forward to working with members to amplify the power of these places.”
FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM
The Greenwood Cemetery is home to both George Taylor and Elijah Fish. The city’s museum is responsible for most of the known history of the two men, who are buried in the same cemetery but came there with vastly different stories.
Fish was a white man and a well-known abolitionist. According to the Birmingham Museum, Fish was born in 1791 in Massachusetts but by 1820 had made his way to Michigan to settle and raise a family. He founded the town’s first Presbyterian Church in his barn and became active in the antislavery movement. In 1836, a newspaper called the Pontiac Courier reported that Fish founded the Oakland County Anti-Slavery Society and served as its chairperson.
Fish died just weeks after his 70th birthday in 1861. He died before his dream became a reality, but his family knew his sacrifices would pay off, marking his headstone with: “A useful life and a peaceful death is the epitome of his history.”
YEARNING TO BE FREE
It’s not known if Fish and Taylor ever crossed paths, but their stories do overlap for a short stretch.
Taylor was born into slavery in 1821 in Kentucky. According to an article published in the Detroit Journal, Taylor’s brother bought him a ferry ticket to cross the Ohio River into Indiana, where he set off by foot, traveling for several weeks at night to try to make it to Canada.
In Indiana, Taylor was caught twice. He escaped his captors once. The second time, he was taken in front of a judge, who happened to be an abolitionist and ordered that he be set free.
Taylor eventually made it to Niles, Michigan, a popular stop on the underground railroad. After weeks on the run, he was finally able to catch his breath before heading east and making his way to Canada, which had outlawed slavery in 1833.
After a year in Canada, Taylor returned to Michigan, eventually meeting the woman he would marry: Elizabeth Desier. She was born into slavery in Tennessee and was emancipated when the 13th Amendment was ratified after the Civil War. She made her way to Royal Oak, Michigan, where she reunited with her mother, who she hadn’t seen in more than two decades.
After spending years in Kansas, the Taylors returned to Michigan, becoming the first African Americans to own property and pay taxes in Birmingham. The Taylors died months apart in 1901 and 1902 and were buried in Greenwood Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
After researching their stories, the Birmingham Museum raised thousands of dollars for a proper headstone to honor the Taylors. The museum hopes to hold a public ceremony for the headstone later this spring.