Birmingham Museum highlights stories of city’s Black founders

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 12, 2021

 George and Eliza Taylor, two of Birmingham’s first African American landowners, were recently found to be connected to other prominent local families dating back to the county’s wilderness settlement.

George and Eliza Taylor, two of Birmingham’s first African American landowners, were recently found to be connected to other prominent local families dating back to the county’s wilderness settlement.

Photo provided by Leslie Pielack, The Birmingham Museum

Photo provided by Leslie Pielack, The Birmingham Museum

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BIRMINGHAM — Last fall, local volunteers set out to raise funds to place markers at the graves of former slaves and early Birmingham residents George and Eliza Taylor, to give them a proper end to their story.

But where did their story begin?

The Birmingham Museum coordinated a successful campaign with the Daughters of the American Revolution Piety Hill Chapter and the Friends of the Birmingham Museum to honor the Taylors, who died six months apart in 1901 and 1902. Since then, Museum Director Leslie Pielack said, she and her staff have continued to scour documents and news articles to learn more about one of the city’s first African American families.

“We had more questions,” said Pielack in an email. “What drew George Taylor to Oakland County in the first place? Did Eliza find her mother, and why and when had she come to Royal Oak?”

Pielack said they knew the Taylors settled as farmers in the area before they eventually bought a home on Bates Street in Birmingham in 1893, making them the first African American property owners in Birmingham. They were active in the United Presbyterian Church and were highly regarded in the community — but they weren’t prominent politicians or real estate tycoons. Those are the figures historians tend to focus on, not normal everyday folks like George and Eliza.

To fill in the gaps of the Taylors’ history, Pielack worked her way backward and traced the lineage of George and Eliza’s adopted daughter, Clara Taylor. That led to a connection to the family of Hamlet and Jane Harris, a well-known African American family in Royal Oak.

Pielack teamed up with the Royal Oak Historical Society, but they didn’t have much information on the Harris family. As it turns out, there was a reason for that: The Harrises were a large family that can be traced back to 1830, when Oakland County was a new wilderness settlement and Royal Oak didn’t even exist.

Hamlet Harris was never enslaved, but records indicate he bought his wife, Jane, out of slavery. They fostered several former slaves before and after the Civil War, one of whom was Clara Taylor’s biological mother.

The Taylors became linked with another prominent Black family when Clara married Joseph Farmer, of the Farmers family in Wayne County.

“The Farmer family also migrated to early Michigan and apparently were never enslaved. Their history, however, includes marginalization and discrimination in Delaware due to their combined Native American and Black heritage,” said Pielack.

The graves of Abbie Farmer Harris and Abe Harris can be found at Greenwood Cemetery, near the Taylors. Abbie was Joseph Farmer’s sister, and she and her husband, Abe, lived in Birmingham, along with their descendants, through the 20th century.

The graves of Abbie Farmer Harris and Abe Harris were located by a local volunteer, Jacquie Patt, who has been working for years to map out all of the residents buried at Greenwood. She said she’s glad the museum can put her passion project to good use.

“I felt it is important to research and document the people buried there,” Patt said. “I just work on my own, photographing markers and doing research to make the information available online. I do it because I enjoy it.”

The stories of those three families and how they came together in Birmingham are available online now in celebration of Black History Month. Pielack said a special series of articles on the Taylors, Harisses and Farmers can be found on the museum’s website, bhamgov.org/history/museum. The museum is also planning on creating video content to share on its social platforms soon.

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