Ties to the Underground Railroad in Birmingham were recently made, including, the recognition of the final arresting places of George B. Taylor and Elijah S. Fish.

Ties to the Underground Railroad in Birmingham were recently made, including, the recognition of the final arresting places of George B. Taylor and Elijah S. Fish.

Photo provided by the city of Birmingham

Neighboring cities collaborate to find Underground Railroad connections

By: Mary Genson | Birmingham-Bloomfield Eagle | Published December 7, 2022

BIRMINGHAM — After successfully receiving the National Park Service’s recognition of the Greenwood Cemetery gravesites of Elijah S. Fish and George B. Taylor on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, local historians were motivated to continue looking for connections in Oakland County.

Birmingham Museum Director Leslie Pielack has been working with her team to research connections to the Underground Railroad in Birmingham, while Carol Bacak-Egbo was doing the same kind of research in White Lake Township.

Bacak-Egbo said they kept finding connections between the people in those two areas as they were doing their individual research. This discovery led them to apply for a grant from Michigan Humanities, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Communities are connected to other communities. People are connected to people in other communities, and it’s almost impossible to only research one community without learning something about a neighboring community’s connection,” Pielack said.

Bacak-Egbo is the historical and educational consultant for the project. Oakland County Historical Commissioner Rose Richardson is also involved as the African American cultural consultant.

Representatives from Birmingham, Farmington, Pontiac, Royal Oak and Southfield will work together on the project, titled “The Underground Railroad and Abolition Movement in Southern Oakland County-Traveling Exhibit and Website.”

“We need to come together instead of just trying to tell our individual stories. Let’s tell the story of our five communities,” Pielack said. “These five communities are important because they each have evidence-based research that is verifiably able to identify that there’s Underground Railroad activity in that area or that the abolitionist movement in Michigan was very active there.”

Each community will have a team leader who will be working with researchers in their own communities. Bacak-Egbo said having more brains collaborating on this project is just what they needed to make these connections.

“It’s a big county, but by taking on just the southern tier, which is going to be easiest because it was closest to Detroit, that gives us a way to take those five communities, look at the connections, and then replicate it in other parts of Oakland County,” Bacak-Egbo said.

The ultimate goal of the project is to educate the public about the physical locations and people involved in the anti-slavery movement in southern Oakland County in the 19th century. They plan to do this through a traveling exhibit and interactive virtual map.

“The average person of any age in Oakland County has no idea about the heritage of the Underground Railroad here, and yet it is very significant,” Pielack said.

The grant award from the Michigan Humanities Council to the city of Birmingham totals $14,475. Other funds for the project come from the Friends of the Birmingham Museum’s $2,500 contribution. Several donations of professional services and volunteer personnel contributions have also been made.

Pielack said they expect to be doing research for the next several months into 2023, and they do not expect the final exhibit and website to be developed and ready until the latter part of 2023.

Once the website and exhibit are ready, these resources will be available to the public in several locations for at least three years.

The plan is for the exhibit to travel all over Oakland County so the public can experience it for free in areas such as libraries, public buildings, schools and community centers.

The Oakland History Center will host the interactive digital map as part of its online map collection.