Metro Detroit, EastpointeJune 15, 2012
Retired professor leads Underground Railroad tours
By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer
Stewart McMillin sits surrounded by papers, books and maps in a small booth at a Big Boy near his house in Detroit.
Maps with highlighted routes are scattered on the table across from him as well. Pieces of paper with odd phrases like “Dry Goods = Female Slave” sit on top of it. He talks about slavery and black culture.
Nearby diners can’t help but notice him. Some stare. Others just casually glance his way then look back to their plates as if they are trying hard to hear what he is saying over the clang of dishes and sounds of conversation elsewhere in the restaurant.
McMillin is a 72-year-old white man.
He speaks casually about black culture and slavery, and doesn’t seem to notice the glances that it arouses. The inquisitive looks soon fade. McMillin knows what he is talking about and genuinely cares.
Two middle-aged black men overhear what he’s talking about. He can tell they’re paying attention. When they get up to pay, he approaches them at the cash register. A handshake turns into a 15-minute conversation.
The three walk back to his maps.
“Right there,” says one of the men while pointing to the southern tip of Ohio. “That’s where my family’s from. … They were all slaves.”
McMillin analyzes the area on the map the man pointed to — it’s one of the few areas without orange routes highlighted.
“That’s interesting,” McMillin tells the man. “I’m going down right around there the first weekend in August for one of my Underground Railroad tours. All of these routes are established Underground Railroad paths. Your family probably came up on one of them. You should come.”
The man tells McMillin he’s already going down for a family reunion in July, but maybe another time. He says he’ll remember the website information and look it up, then leaves.
McMillin, a retired East Detroit High School teacher and Wayne State professor, is a tour guide. Underground Railroad tours are his specialty, but he also does various tours pertaining to Detroit history and culture.
He’s eager about the upcoming tour to Ohio. It’s a five-day affair, departing the morning of Aug. 1 from Eastpointe and returning the evening of Aug. 5. Tour-goers will be taken to historical Underground Railroad sites around Ohio in Dayton, Wilberforce, Springboro, Cincinnati, New Richmond, Ripley, Point Pleasant, Georgetown, Red Oak, Sardinia, Wellington and Oberlin, and around Kentucky in Covington, Maysville, Washington, Dover and Augusta.
The cost is $645 for single travelers and $495 a person for double travelers, and that includes a travel bus with a restroom, hotels, entrance into various historical sites, handouts, and dinner and a river cruise on the last night.
McMillin says he needs to sell at least 30 tickets to break even.
“Sold seven so far,” he says. “I’m hoping to sell more before the end of the month, so I can confirm the reservations. We take an air-conditioned bus now. They’re more expensive. It cost about $700 to rent it for the day.”
Not all of McMillin’s tours are overnight trips. One of his most popular tours is of old breweries and microbreweries in Detroit. He has one planed for July 21. The $35 cost includes the bus, beer artifacts, stops at the many locations of breweries that used to run in the city — Stroh’s, Goebel, E & B, Schmidt, Oldbru, Pfeiffer, Altes, Trivoli, Zynda’s, Kling and more — as well as the chance to enjoy the tastes of some current microbreweries with stops at the Atwater Block Brewery, the Detroit Beer Co., Motor City Brewing Works and Traffic Jam.
McMillin recently added a new tour to his queue — a Detroit celebrity home tour. It was a sellout success when he debuted it on May 24, so he’s bringing it back for a second round on Nov. 17. The $30 tour will pass by the former homes of Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Jack White, Berry Gordy, Charles Lindbergh, Rosa Parks, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Hoffa, Diana Ross, Malcolm X, Ted Nugent and dozens of other celebrities.
His favorite tours are the Underground Railroad and black history tours, though. It’s a subject he’s been passionate about for decades.
“I think I was the first teacher in the county to start teaching African-American history in public schools. I started teaching it the year after the civil rights movement passed, in ’65. It’s an important part of our history, and I wanted my students to know about it. The more I looked into it and traveled and researched it, the more fascinating things I discovered. That’s why I started doing tours.”
Local tours in 2012
• July 21, Detroit brewery history and microbrewery tour, $35.
• Sept. 29, Albert Kahn tour, $60 includes lunch at Sinbad’s.
• Oct. 6, Underground Railroad tour to Canada, $60 includes admission to two museums.
• Oct. 30, Woodlawn and Woodmere cemeteries, $60 includes lunch at Dakota Inn Rathskellar.
• Nov. 17, Detroit celebrity home tour, $30.
• Nov. 28, German culture and history tour, $62 includes lunch at Jacoby’s.
• Dec. 8, Italian history and culture tour of Detroit and Windsor, $80 includes lunch at Mario’s, admission to the DIA and dinner in Little Italy in Windsor.
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