Explore the stories of the Underground Railroad in Michigan with new interactive map
From the shores of Lake Michigan to the heart of Detroit, and north to Sault Ste. Marie, sites in Michigan echo through time with stories of the past not often found in textbooks – the stories of people fleeing enslavement in the mid-1800s, abolitionists who assisted them, and communities that stepped up to protect freedom seekers.
The Michigan History Center, in partnership with the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission, has collected two dozen of these stories – always fascinating, sometimes harrowing – into a new interactive map to help anyone interested in this moment in history discover and learn more.
From the Crosswhite family’s escape from Kentuckians seeking to return them to enslavement to the story of abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland, who devoted her life to antislavery activism, the interactive map includes 24 Michigan stories recognized by the National Park Service Network to Freedom – a federal register of programs, places and activities that commemorate the stories of the men and women who risked everything for freedom and those who helped them.
Nominations to be listed in the Network to Freedom require rigorous research and documentation. Nominees may be a site represented by a building, a cemetery, a marker or a monument; a regularly offered program or tour featuring the Underground Railroad; or a research institution with collections about the topic.
The stories on the new map are tied to physical sites across the state. Some are marked with new signs that note a site's recognition by the National Network to Freedom and the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission. The signs include a QR code that, when scanned by a mobile device, connects to the interactive map and the stories of people and events at that site.
“The new, interactive Michigan Freedom Trail map will share powerful stories of freedom and liberation in two dozen sites across our state,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “With this project, the Michigan History Center and its partners are showcasing Michigan’s stops on the Underground Railroad and bringing so many places and people to life. This is all a part of our rich, proud history, and it will now be accessible to more Michiganders and visitors.”
The Michigan Freedom Trail interactive map and updated physical signage are part of a project made possible by a 2021 grant from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and the National Network to Freedom.
“This project goes beyond identifying and commemorating historic sites,” said Amanda Campbell, past chair of the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission and author of the grant. "It underscores the power of place, connecting people to the outdoors, neighborhoods, structures and history, and encouraging stewardship and care of important historic sites."
The project offers the stories of the Underground Railroad usually limited to museum exhibits, special events and webinars. It makes this traditionally under-represented history a more visible part of Michigan’s story, both online and in person.
"We expect that the Michigan Freedom Trail signs and online resources will make the Underground Railroad stories a more prominent part of Michigan tourism and education," said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center. "Our hope is that the heightened visibility will encourage more local groups and historical societies to document their connections to the Underground Railroad and seek National Network to Freedom recognition."
Explore each of the 24 stories at Michigan.gov/MIUndergroundRR.
The Michigan Freedom Trail Commission preserves, protects and promotes the rich legacy of the Underground Railroad and the antislavery movement in Michigan. Members are appointed by the governor. Commission membership, meeting schedule and other information are available at Michigan.gov/FreedomTrail.
An agency of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Michigan History Center fosters curiosity, enjoyment and inspiration rooted in Michigan’s stories. It offers 12 museums and historic sites across the state, including nine in state parks; the Archives of Michigan; Michigan Historical Markers; heritage trails; the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve, and two web portals. Learn more at Michigan.gov/MHC.
Photos courtesy of MDNR