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Park in Brooklyn added to national registry for Underground Railroad sites

The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to say Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve is managed jointly by the DNR and Washtenaw County.

Michigan's newest state park has now been noted for its historical connection to the Underground Railroad, where efforts to protect runaway slaves and former slaves continued throughout the 1800s.

Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve in Brooklyn has been accepted into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom by the National Park Service, Michigan's Department of Natural Resources announced. 

Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve

The designation places the site in a database of places, facilities and programs that have an association to the Underground Railroad. Its mission “is to honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide,” according to the Network to Freedom website.

The park in Brooklyn features a five-mile walking trail and a lake. It was designated a state park in August 2016 and is jointly managed between the DNR and Washtenaw County.

Its history traces to early settler Royal Watkins, who was opposed to slavery. From the farm's establishment in 1834, Watkins and wife Sally employed African and Native Americans. One employee was John White, formerly Felix White, who had escaped enslavement in Kentucky and was the target of a kidnapping attempt.

The plot to capture John Felix White, as told by the DNR, began in the fall of 1847. Kentucky slave-trader George Brasher assembled seven men to locate and capture White. They had been told they’d find White at the Watkins Farm. Instead, with the help of the area’s most prominent Underground Railroad activist Laura Smith Haviland, John White escaped capture. The man the Kentuckians found working in the field was a white field hand sent out in disguise.

When confronted, Royal Watkins reportedly said, “I suppose he is in Canada, as I took him, with his trunk, to the depot, yesterday, for that country."

There are 25 other Michigan sites and programs connected to Underground Railroad history through the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission and the national Network to Freedom.

“The DNR takes great pride in being able to help preserve, honor and shine light on the importance of the Underground Railroad in American history,” said Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, said in a release. “The designation recognizes the site’s cultural and historical significance and brings national attention to Michigan’s role in the Underground Railroad and the abolition of slavery.”

There are virtual events and activities planned on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout September to provide learning opportunities on Michigan and the Underground Railroad.