A Tale of Four Families: The Black History of Early Birmingham Part I, The Taylors
by Leslie Pielack
Four families. A broad heritage that includes enslavement in Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee; Native American tribal ancestors; and pioneer prosperity in early Michigan.
Brought together through a special connection in late 19th century, a not widely known but enduring Black history legacy developed in Oakland County. This four-part article series will highlight recent findings about the Taylor, Cason, Farmer, and Harris families, and how they contributed to the story of Birmingham. Sources can be found here.
Found by Accident
We 21st century local history types at the Birmingham Museum learned of George Taylor (1823-1901) and his wife Eliza (1827-1902) in early 2020 quite by accident. George Getschman of the Friends of the Birmingham Museum had come across George Taylor’s obituary while doing other research, and was astonished to learn that he was described as the “first [African American] property owner in Birmingham.”1 Wait, what? We always surmised there was some Black history in the area that preceded the mid-twentieth century, but had never found anything specific. This was very specific. Two formerly enslaved people who settled in Birmingham and were an active part of the community had died in 1901 and 1902 and were buried in our historic Greenwood Cemetery. And we didn’t know anything about them or their heritage, a situation made worse by the lack of a grave marker. But, finding George and Eliza Taylor’s obituaries changed everything. We (myself, Caitlin Donnelly, and especially Donna Casaceli) launched an effort to track down more information, and in the process, received tips from others who jumped at the chance to help find documents to nail down the story further. [Left- Birmingham Eccentric, “Death of George B. Taylor,” November 8, 1901, 1.) Courtesy Bloomfield Township Library online archives.]
How They Came to Michigan
George Taylor’s early life is unclear; his exact age was never known, and even his name may not be the one he was given at birth when he was born in enslavement in Kentucky. His obituary tells the story of his desperate flight north in 1855 as a young man via the Underground Railroad.2 Although slavery itself was outlawed in Michigan, bounty hunters could legally re-capture those who had fled other states if they were found. Freedom seekers often changed their names to avoid identification and re-capture. Unfortunately, hiding their identities often left no trace of their past existence, making the reconstruction of their lives especially difficult. The Railroad routes from Kentucky entered Michigan at various points, but a major path brought freedom seekers through Farmington in Oakland County, to Port Huron, and on to final safety in Canada, bypassing Detroit (which could be heavily watched by bounty hunters). 3 Perhaps George followed this route when he came to Michigan, and was determined to return here; we can’t be sure. In any case, after a few years in Canada, George came to Southfield Township as a farmer/laborer around 1858, and the census records for 1860, 1870, and 1880 place him as a resident on farms near Birmingham.4
Daniel and Matilda Cason
According to the Taylors’ obituaries, George and Eliza were married around 1869, shortly after she had come to Michigan seeking her biological mother in Royal Oak. Her mother has been identified both as Matilda Allen Cason (1800-1880) (wife of Daniel) and “Mrs. Stull,” as reported in her obituary. Daniel Cason (1800-Aft 1880) was born in Virginia around 1800. We don’t know if he was enslaved there, or how he came to Oakland County, but by 1850, he had purchased a parcel of land just north of town.
He farmed it with his first wife Mary Blucher Cason (1800 - Bef 1860) and their household included a number of children, one of whom was their son Calvin Cason (1841-1904). Sometime in the next ten years, Mary Cason died. In 1860, 68-year old Daniel Cason married 60-year old Matilda (Allen). We know from later documents that she had formerly been enslaved in Kentucky, but how and when she came to Michigan, or how she met Daniel, is uncertain. Interestingly, various census records show that the Cason household included a variety of minor children before and after the Civil War, only some of whom appear to have been biologically related to Cason.5 This may suggest that over at least a twenty-year period the Casons, like others, took in minor African American children who were homeless, orphans, or had escaped enslavement. [Right- Beers, F.W. Map, Royal Oak Township [detail, annotation by author]. Atlas of Oakland County, 1872. Courtesy Oakland History Center, https://www.ocphs.org/1872-oakland-county-maps-fw-beers-publisher/ ]
Eliza Taylor’s obituary offers a heartbreaking example of the unfortunate but common practice of separating parents and children that was so devastating to enslaved families. When Eliza was still very young in Tennessee in the 1830s, she and her mother Matilda were sold to separate slaveholders. Thirty years passed; Eliza did not see her mother again until her emancipation after the Civil War. She came north to Oakland County seeking Matilda and found her in Royal Oak. She was in her 30s; Matilda was in her 60s. How did Eliza find her mother so many years later? Had they been in touch in some way?
And, what about Matilda? Where was she for the thirty years after being separated from Eliza in Tennessee in the 1830s? Having been enslaved, how did she come to Oakland County before emancipation? Had she fled enslavement via the Underground Railroad, or perhaps been bought out of slavery? When? Did she have connections to Royal Oak or Detroit that led her here, or was it happenstance that she met and married Daniel Cason in 1860? The answers to these questions are still a mystery, but what we’re learning about African American families in Oakland County suggests that there is more to the story. The Taylors, as it turns out, became connected to other local families of color in a fascinating family network that we are still working to unravel.
Matilda Cason died in Royal Oak in 1880. Perhaps because of her mother’s death, George and Eliza left Oakland County in 1881 for Kansas, where they stayed for twelve years. We don’t know exactly what they did there; interestingly, a Calvin J. Cason had purchased 160 acres in Linn County, Kansas in 1860. Was this Daniel Cason’s son, Calvin—and was he responsible for the Taylors going there? What did they do/how did they make a living for twelve years? This last is important, for when they returned to Birmingham in 1893, they had sufficient money to purchase property to build a house on what is now Stanley Street in the village of Birmingham. The couple were active in Birmingham’s United Presbyterian Church (organized 1879) and had “the respect and esteem of all who knew them.”6 [Left-Ogle, George. Map, Village of Birmingham (detail showing the Taylor property location with annotation), from Standard Atlas of Oakland County, 1908. Courtesy John Marshall]
At the time, Birmingham was a rural town surrounded by small farms in the adjoining Troy, Southfield, and Bloomfield Townships with an active commercial center that supported local agriculture. George Taylor worked on area farms from 1858-1881, first as a laborer and later as a tenant farmer. Just as with the Cason household, census records note several African American children who resided with the Taylors during those years before and after the Civil War. These minor children were apparently fostered by the Taylors, as their obituaries clarify that the Taylors had no children of their own. The children could have been fleeing enslavement or otherwise were separated from their biological families, later sheltering with families like the Taylors until they had the means or interest in moving on. However, one of the Taylors’ young wards was different; she was born well after the war in 1876 in Southfield, and was adopted by the Taylors soon afterward. Her name was Clara, and she is at the center of the story of Birmingham’s connection to the area’s early African American families.
Except for the period in Kansas, Clara Taylor Farmer (1876-1920) grew up in Birmingham and was a part of the community. She also was married here in 1898, just after her 21st birthday. She and her husband continued to live in the village and care for the aging Taylors. After George and Eliza died in 1901 and 1902, Clara and her husband continued to live in town on property they owned, eventually relocating to the Midland area in 1909. In our view, Clara Taylor Farmer is the center of our story, because she is the link between prominent African American families in southeast Michigan during the pre- and post-Civil War period. By tracing the people connected to Clara before and after her birth, a more complete picture emerges of the Black history of Birmingham.7
Mothers and Daughters: Julia Blevens and Her Story
Julia Ann Blevens (1849-1926) was an African American woman who was first documented in Michigan’s 1860 census in Royal Oak, living in various locations in Detroit from the 1870s onward. This was a period of transition, when southeast Michigan’s primarily agricultural economy shifted to a period of industrial growth and expansion. It was also a time during which labor-based occupations and populations grew in America’s cities, such as Detroit. Women increasingly supported themselves, often without marrying, through employment that nevertheless was physically demanding and poorly paid. Without a husband or a family, aging could be a very difficult prospect for such women. Such is the case with Julia Blevens; after a long life of hard work, she died of malnutrition at the age of 76 in Detroit after falling and breaking her hip. It is in the record of her unfortunate death that we glimpse what must have been a difficult life for Julia; she is described as having never married, with no family of her own. It also leads to additional information that helps illuminate her biological family relationships to the Taylors of Birmingham, through Clara, and to the Harrises of Royal Oak, who are the subject of Part III of this series.8
Through cross-referencing other documents (such as Clara’s second marriage record from 1915 and Harris family history), it becomes clear that Julia Blevens was Clara Taylor’s biological mother.9 Clara’s biological father is recorded as (William) John Jones (n.d.), about whom little is known but that he was born in Kentucky. His relationship with Julia was apparently brief, with no record of marriage or long-term involvement; in fact, documents throughout Blevens’ life identify her status as never married. A picture emerges of Blevens as a single mother in her twenties with limited resources and options, who chose adoption for her child by a couple already in their fifties—the Taylors. Blevens may have even been living with George and Eliza when she gave birth, as Clara was born in Southfield (where the Taylors lived at the time) rather than Royal Oak, where Julia had been living the previous decade or so.10 How, exactly, did Julia become connected with the Taylors? What happened to her after Clara was born? Did she maintain a relationship with Clara over the years?
Part of the story involves going back to Julia’s childhood, where she began her life in Kentucky in 1849, born into enslavement as the child of a man only identified as “Slaveholder Blevins.”11 By age 12, however, Julia and her younger brother William were living hundreds of miles away in the household of Abraham Harris (1821-1898) and his wife Martha in Royal Oak. Julia would have had to make the journey north on her own, with her brother in tow.12 Were they fleeing enslavement via the Underground Railroad, as so many others were doing at the time? What brought these children to Royal Oak, specifically? A look at other documents suggests an answer—that Martha (Bethena) White Harris (1825-1897) was Julia’s biological mother. [Right-“Julia Ann Blevens,”Michigan Death Records, 1867-1952. Lansing, Michigan: Michigan Department of Community Health, Division of Vital Records and Health Statistics, Wayne (Detroit), 1926, 064528, 615. Ancestry.com]
On Blevens’ death record, Julia’s mother was identified as Bethena White. Bethena’s birth date and state of origin are identical to that of Martha White, the wife of Abraham Harris of Royal Oak. This suggests they were either the same woman, or (a much more unlikely possibility) twin sisters.13 White married Abraham Harris in 1853 in Detroit, before the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people. It is not clear whether Martha was escaping enslavement herself, but that might explain why 4-year old Julia and 3-year old William were not with her in Michigan. It appears Julia, like Matilda Cason, came to Oakland County to seek her biological mother after being separated during enslavement. Interestingly, the informant for Blevens’ death record was Orrin Christopher Harris (1854-1929), Martha and Abraham Harris’ eldest son and Julia’s nearest relative (half-brother or cousin). This further suggests that Blevens remained in contact with the family (at least Orrin) throughout her life.14 Furthermore, although she lived and died in Detroit, she was buried in Royal Oak cemetery after her death, presumably near the Harris’ large family plot.15
The Heart of the Matter
Documents are not the only, nor even the most important, evidence in connecting people to each other. Family histories—especially photographs, diaries, letters, and the like—provide the personal background and illuminate familial relationships and roles. We are fortunate that the Harris family was well documented in photographic portraits through the generations, with labels and relationships often noted that would elude our understanding otherwise. It is Julia Blevens’ portrait (left) in the family photograph collection that helps place her in the context of her family. It also provides hints about her and her life circumstances.16 In her photograph, we see a young woman in her twenties who seems confident and is dressed well but modestly. The path her life would take and her trials over the decades to come are not yet written on her face. Was the photo taken before she gave birth to Clara? Did she become estranged from the larger Harris family around this time, ultimately living alone in Detroit for the rest of her life, only to be buried near them in Royal Oak after she died? Or, was it her choice to live independently and support herself in her own way?
Much about the nature of her connections to family members may be uncertain, but the caption with the photograph makes clear that Julia was important to the larger family and part of its story. It verifies that she is Clara [Blevens] Taylor’s mother and the grandmother to Clara’s children. This simple label firmly establishes the link between Julia and the Harris family through Clara to the Taylors and through Clara’s husband, to the Farmers of central Wayne County, a third important Native American and African American family in of the time.17
Tracing the various familial connections in the early Black history of Birmingham and southeast Michigan provides a pathway to understanding how people of color adjusted to the transitional period before and after the Civil War. How they came to be in Michigan is only part of the picture; the real question is, how did their previous lives affect them, their communities and each other? What obstacles did they and their descendants face, how did they deal with them, and what is their legacy today?