First Integrated School – Long before Brown vs Board of Education

Because of Covid our plans for continuing our exploration of Michigan this summer did not materialize. However, we did get in just a little adventure on a recent trip back to Illinois to visit family. During that trip my husband and I took a side tour to Otterville, Illinois.

My husband was interested in the area because many of his mother’s family had once lived there. During research on his family tree, he discovered that one of his ancestors (his tenth great grandfather) was actually a slave from Angola. From previous trips to that area we knew there was a school that had been established in Otterville for the education of black students. Intrigued by the idea that a school for black students had been established in the same area where the branch of his family descended from a slave had also resided, he wanted to check out this school.

Hidden away in this small country town is a jewel of history. The building we found there is no longer in use as a school, but has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Classes were actually held there through 1971. Beginning in 1983 the site has been open for tours and an annual Hamilton Primary School Festival is held each year in September.

This school’s claim to fame is that it was the first integrated school in the nation. Years before the Civil War and before the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 Brown vs Board of Education, the Hamilton Primary School opened in 1835 as a free school open to everyone regardless of financial resources or color of skin.

Named after its benefactor, Dr. Silas Hamilton, a stone schoolhouse was opened in 1836. The finances for this school came from $4,000 Dr. Hamilton left in his will for construction and operation of a building for both educational and religious purposes. Razed in 1872, rebuilt and enlarged classes were held here until 1971.

Hamilton Primary School in 1835

Dr. Hamilton, a physicial originally from Vermont established a practice in Nashville, Tennessee. Saddened by the treatment of slaves that he saw, he bought a plantation in Mississippi in 1820. His mistaken idea was that he would treat his 28 slaves humanely and that would serve as a model for his neighbors. Of course, this did not work.

Recognizing this was an unrealistic and impractical experience, he traveled to Ohio where he freed his slaves. Moving west, he settled in what became Otterville and opened a medical practice.

While still a slave owner in Mississippi and on a trip back to Vermont he found a little boy whose parents had been sold at a slave auction. He purchased the young boy whose name was George Washington. While he freed George, the young man came with him to Otterville. The residents of Otterville were supporters of abolition and it is rumored that the town may have been a stop on the Undergrand Railroad.

On his death, Dr. Hamilton provided funds for the school to be built.

“Believing in the very great importance of primary schools, and desiring that my friends and relatives in this neighborhood should receive the benefit of them, I give and bequeath $4,000. dollars for the establishment of a primary school.  $2,000 dollars to be appropriated to the erection of a building suitable for the school and a place of public worship, and $2,000 dollars to constitute a fund for the support of a teacher, said house to be erected not to exceed one mile south of this residence, nor one mile north, nor a quarter of a mile east, but at or near the point called the Four Corners, and I desire my executors to oversee the erection of such a building…”

Influenced by Dr. Hamilton, George Washington continued to live as the doctor had – caring for his neighbors. He was a successful farmer and active in the Otterville Baptist Church. An excellent singer, he often lead the singing and taught a Sunday School class also. Those who shared stories about George to their family members said that whenever a family had sickness, he would show up with wood for the fire and food for the table. He was the community “grave digger” working for free. As long as he stayed in Jersey County he was a free citizen. However, on a trip to the nearby city of Grafton (Calhoun County), he was assaulted by some men and placed in jail charged as a fugitive slave. Fortunately, a Jersey County businessman heard of his arrest and was able to procured his freedom.

On his death he left a sizeable estate to pay his debts, provide a monument to this former master and for the education of “colored persons, or Americans of African descent.”

On his death Washington was buried alongside his former master. While Southern plantation owners often buried their slaves in family plots, this is probably the only incident where the master and slave were buried side-by-side. Also, the only known instance where a former slave erected a monument for his master.

The newer school and church built in 1873 used stones from the original building. Since 1983 it has served as a museum with the halls and classrooms line with photos of past graduation classes, and photos and cermeonies remembering Hamtilton and Washinton.

Another reminder that when you get off the beaten path there is so much history hidden in small towns and unexpected places.

Exploring Southern Michigan

Almost two years ago my husband and I moved to Michigan.  Situated close to the middle of the “mitten” we have spent the last two years exploring this beautiful state.  We have fallen in love with the many small towns around the state that are full of arts and crafts, charming down towns that have preserved the older buildings and, of course, the many towns built by Lake Michigan with their beautiful beaches and historical lighthouses.  While it would be hard to pick one town over the other, I must confess I especially loved Holland during the tulip festival and Frankfort was probably my favorite.

Some of our trips started out with a particular town in mind but most of the trips we just got in the car and headed north – east – west.  Getting off the interstates and taking side roads led us to discover many lovely towns and beautiful scenes that we would have missed if we had stayed with the main road.

Yesterday we decided to head in a direction we had not taken – south.  Heading south we discovered the area looked more like our home in Illinois.  More corn fields, more open areas with fewer trees.  The majority of trees were – like back home – deciduous.  While there were evergreen trees they were in the minority.

It was nice to get the sense of being back home, but I must confess in my opinion the southern part of Michigan does not begin to compare with the beauty up north.

However, we did discover two interesting towns.

  • Jackson Michigan

The town of Jackson claims to be the birthplace of the Republican party.  (I have found other towns making that claim.)  There is a plaque commemorating a meeting held in 1854 that Jackson claims was the start of the party led by anti-slavery men.  oaks

 

 

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Jackson also lays claim to having the first prison in Michigan.  Today the old prison area has been turned into the Armory Art’s Village.  Situated behind a 25-foot stone wall, these apartments are home to emerging artists and musicians.

prison

They give tours of the old prison site, but due to the virus restrictions we were not able to take the tour.  Something to put on our bucket list for later.

Jackson also has several buildings/areas that were part of the underground railroad – but again because of the virus we were not able to visit them.  Add that to the bucket list.

  • From Jackson we headed west to Hillsdale.

Hillsdale College sits in the heart of the city.  The school was established by Free Will Baptists as Central Michigan College at Spring Arbor in 1844.  In 1853 it moved to Hillsdale and changed its name.  It was the first American college whose charter prohibited discrimination based on race, religion or sex.  Hillsdale was the second college in the nation to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women.

hillsdale

Hillsdale 9

The college was very active in the fight to end slavery with more students enlisting to fight for the Union than any other western college.  More than 400 students fought for the Union and sixty gave their lives.  Four students earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, three became generals and many served as regimental commanders.  In honor of that heritage the college had a statute of an Union soldier on its campus as well as Frederick Douglas.

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We also saw statues of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

Leaving Hillsdale we headed back home.  While I must confess my trip south was not as beautiful as the trips we have taken north, still it was good to have discovered more about our adopted state, Michigan.

I vote that our next road trip takes us back north!

 

 

 

 

 

Underground Railroad History in Michigan

So excited!  As a lover of American history – both its good and its bad history – I have found that there is a wealth of history on the Underground Railroad in the state where I recently became a resident.

I recently wrote a couple of blogs about statues of African-Americans in the USA.

Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre Memorial  and

Denmark Vesey – Leader of Failed Rebellion

I knew there was a statute of Harriet Tubman in New York City.  This statute was dedicated in 2008 and is located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

Tubman

However, I was surprised to find out there is not one, but two statutes of Tubman in Michigan.  In researching information on these statutes, I discovered that Michigan was very much involved in the Underground Railroad.

Looking at the map of Michigan it is easy to see why this location would have been perfect for those trying to escape slavery and find freedom in Canada.  Surrounded by three of the Great Lakes – Michigan, Huron and Erie, Michigan’s eastern cities are only a short distance from Canada.

The first monument is a bronze statue of not only Tubman but local conductors of the Underground Railroad, Erastus and Sarah Hussey.  This statue in Battle Creek, Michigan depicts Tubman and the other two conductors leading a group of runaway slaves to safety.   Created in 1993 by sculptor Ed Dwight the W. K. Kellogg Foundation commissioned the work.

Tubman 2

The second statue of Tubman is in Ypsilanti, Michigan.  Located in Washtenaw County in Southeast Michigan there are numeous sites connected with the Underground Railroad.

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(Permission for use of this photograph of the sculpture is granted by sculptor Jane A. DeDecker, Loveland, Colorado.  The sculpture of Harriet Tubman was created in 1995 and is an Edition of 7 with one located near the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock Arkansas.)

 

Cass County in Southwest Michigan also offers many sites where the Underground Railroad was conducted by both free blacks and whites.  Slaves fleeing the South passed through Cass County, then on to Battle Creek and Detroit on their way to freedom in Canada.

So – what started as just wanting to see what statutes of African-Americans there were in the USA, I am excited to find I am near to a lot of history of the Underground Railroad.

Looks like I will be busy checking these sites out!  Can’t wait!

And, of course, I will be writing about these sites as I visit them.