July 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Underground Railroad's women to get their due at Detroit conference

Haviland (From her book 'A Woman's Life-work: Labors and Exp)

Years after Milly McCoy fled slavery for freedom in another nation, she dared to help others follow her lead.

It was the 1850s, when African-Americans who did the same were deemed fugitives and risked capture, punishment or worse. Yet on the farm near Ypsilanti where her family lived after returning to the United States, McCoy hid, fed and tended to runaways bound for the Detroit riverfront and then, eventually, Canada.

The cigar maker’s wife even forbade her daughter from visiting a barn that concealed the fugitives since “any of her neighbors could have seen something and revealed what was happening,” said Carol Mull, an Ann Arbor writer, researcher and author of a book on the Underground Railroad in Michigan. “The majority of the people in the area generally were not in favor of breaking the law and helping people escape, so it was a great risk on her part.”

McCoy’s story symbolizes the main theme for the annual National Underground Railroad Conference, which will be held this year in Detroit. The Wednesday-through-Sunday conference is coordinated by the National Park Service as part of its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.

More than 120 scholars, archivists, community researchers and enthusiasts from across the nation are expected at the event, which explores the roles female “conductors” played in freeing slaves. The Underground Railroad was a network of supporters, hideouts and communities that aided thousands of black slaves in their breakouts from bondage before the Civil War, fleeing to free states and Canada, where the practice was prohibited.

Since Detroit was considered the last stop on the Underground Railroad and area residents figured prominently in its run, the city is the perfect site for the conference’s aim to “shed light on history that’s not well-known,” said Déanda Johnson, Midwest regional coordinator of Network to Freedom Program. “The anti-slavery movement really allowed women to enter into the political and social sphere. They had a prominent role, and sometimes that’s not so well-discussed,” she said.

Conference-affiliated events include workshops Tuesday at the Detroit Public Library and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History; plus a guided trip through Elmwood Cemetery.

The conference starts Wednesday with a bus tour of Underground Railroad sites in Detroit, including visits to the First Congregational and Second Baptist churches, both “stations” on the route.

First Congregational Church has the Underground Railroad Living Museum Flight to Freedom Tour, a re-enactment of the passage slaves followed north. Those en route to the river were secreted in the basement of the church’s former location near Fort and Wayne, officials said.

At the simulation this week, visitors will be steered through a series of encounters depicting freedom seekers’ daunting, nearly 1,000-mile journey from a Louisiana plantation to Detroit, the Rev. Lottie Jones Hood said.

'It's really universal'

“Sometimes people think of it as being black history. ... It’s really American history and it’s really universal,” Hood said. “It strikes at the very heart of what every human being wants, and that is self-determination, freedom and the ability to rise above and beyond hardships.”

Throughout the rest of the week, conference activities — most at the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton in downtown Detroit — include discussions covering topics such as fugitive slave laws, female abolitionists and ancestral ties.

The conference also honors Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who will receive the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission’s first Truth-Haviland award recognizing her social justice work in Detroit. Local resident Grace Lee Boggs will receive the Frederick Douglass Legacy award for her lifelong commitment to social justice issues.

Detroit’s closeness to Canada positioned the city as “ground zero for the Underground Railroad,” said Roy Finkenbine, a panelist and history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

The spot was so popular, in fact, that as early as the 1820s slave catchers lined up on river docks seeking absconders; a local publication advertised rewards for their return, he said.

Female conductors were crucial in directing slaves to Canada.

Among them was Laura Smith Haviland, an abolitionist from Lenawee County. She once had a $3,000 bounty on her head after harboring a fleeing black family and fending off slave owners, state archives show. She also ventured South to help slaves, collecting collars and other items attesting to the brutality of the trade.

“Haviland aided individual African-Americans, fought for equal rights, and helped to support access to education for all,” said Tiya Miles, a professor and former chair of the University of Michigan’s Department of Afroamerican & African Studies, who will discuss her at the conference.

Reality vs. myth

Other chronicles come from participants such as Kimberly Simmons, chairwoman of the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee. She is descended from four freedom-seekers — including Caroline Quarlls Watkins, who fled from St. Louis as a teen in 1842. Before reaching the Detroit riverfront and Ontario, she was sheltered by local abolitionists and outran bounty hunters, Simmons said.

Her flight is cited in an exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum, where scenes from a touring play based on the journey are scheduled to be performed Tuesday.

Remembering the Underground Railroad is “extremely important as the historical beginning of the civil rights movement; however, it is unfortunately tied to many myths and folklore, not necessarily the truth,” Simmons said. “At a conference such as this, it is an opportunity to learn ... the difference between reality and myth.”

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First Congregational Church is hosting the Flight to Freedom Tour, which ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)