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
Seeking the History of People of Color
It was a different world in Michigan in the middle of the 19th century, yet in some ways it was the same as we know today: individuals and families responded to economic and cultural pressure to relocate for better opportunities. At the time, Michigan had only recently become a state. Large tracts of land had been wrested away from the Native American Indigenous people, and the federal government was fully engaged in policies that encouraged migration and agriculture in former wilderness areas. Farms in the east, which had been cultivated for a century or more, were static or even declining, whereas the great western unknown of the country (Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and beyond) held rich promise. Religiously and culturally, the close quarters and entrenched prejudice of the East chafed those with a different vision of the good life. Youthful and progressive attitudes of social equity for women and people of color were emerging across a wide spectrum of American society. New ideas and opportunities incited the dreams of whole communities of people in the east, who looked to the west and hoped for better lives for their families and descendants 4. [Below, map of Michigan from Mitchell's Tourist Pocket Map of Michigan, Philadelphia, 1835]
It was in this environment that free people of color also began to seek other places to start new lives. Non-white and bi-racial people were present in significant numbers in the U.S. from earliest colonial settlement, although not often well documented in official records. This is not only because of economic and cultural bias, but also because this population had lower social status, less wealth, and were less likely to be landholders. They were rarely able to vote or hold public office. They may also have held occupations that made them more mobile, such as laborers, sailors, or itinerant tradesmen. Or, for political reasons, they were left out of records—simply not deemed worthy of being officially documented.
Free People of Color in the Eastern U.S.
Free people of color had formed isolated but stable communities in many parts of the eastern U.S. for generations. Intermarrying over time, they sometimes developed unique mixed-race cultural identities5. These people were often found in former French and Spanish territories, and although having varied features, were often light-skinned individuals with part European ancestry whose mothers were free, or who had been freed by slaveholder fathers6.[Below-Free Blacks in slaveholding states had to be registered to prove their free status. https://essaydocs.org/2-11-free-black-communities-blacks-in-the-south.html]
Records of free people of color were kept in many slaveholding states in order to distinguish freed from enslaved people of African descent. These registers provide some records that assist researchers in identifying individual histories 7. However, these records do not account for those who escaped enslavement or were not actively recorded. Thus, significant numbers of mixed-race free people continued to live in small and isolated communities, engaged in subsistence farming, and might not be reflected in official records of the time. The primary source of historical information for their histories is family-centric and less accessible to outside researchers.
Additional factors contribute to lack of documents for these individuals. First, obstacles to land ownership by people of color leave few property or tax records. Furthermore, marginalization kept many people from being recognized through other forms of documentation, such as newspaper accounts. Thus, the predominant transmission of personal data and relationships was through family and church records, oral accounts, and photos. Especially lacking is documentation for those of Indigenous descent, many of whom lived and died without being entered into official records. As disinherited and displaced native peoples, they were not considered American citizens until the 20th century; they were deemed “foreigners,” and had few rights. In early census records, they were grouped as a total number, without distinction of name or gender, as “Indians,” or were omitted entirely8.
Multi-Racial People in the 19th Century
Native Americans had frequently been enslaved throughout colonial times, especially in territories controlled by the French, British, and Spanish9. After the late 18th century, however, enslavement of Indigenous people was rare. However, successive waves of treaties left them without their traditional homelands and Indian Removal policies of the 19th century transplanted whole tribes to the far western frontier. This reduced their numbers and their presence in the east.
While native people diminished, enslaved Africans increased in number. People of African American descent (both free and those escaping enslavement) formed small communities with Indigenous people and other free people of color10. Their social status was limited by their mixed heritage as well as lack of education, although free people of color might be employed in skilled trades such as carpentry, masonry, or smithing. Farming, however, was their primary occupation. When opportunities opened up in Michigan and other western territories, these skills were especially desirable, paving the way for migrating people of color to be successful in their new communities 11. [Right- Indigenous people such as the Delaware Lenni-Lenape were considered ‘foreigners’ and not counted in early census records.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenape#/media/File:Lenape01.]
By the mid-19th century, the federal census began to classify all people of apparent mixed racial and cultural backgrounds simply as “Mulatto,” while classifying those of apparent African American ancestry as “Black” or “Negro.” 12 The catchall “Mulatto” categorization makes no meaningful distinction about the people it was used to describe, providing little useful information to historians and genealogists. Census enumerators, who were from the local community and usually knew the people they were recording, subjectively interpreted its application and used it inconsistently. It is common to find census records across the decades in which the same family members are classified as “Black,” “Mulatto,” and “White.” Later, when family and individual names were recorded, it is possible to trace individuals and families. Their racial ancestry may be presumed to be Black based on later records, when the story is really much more complex than that. Such is the case with a particular extended free family of color who migrated from Delaware to western Wayne County: The Farmers. [Left- In 1850, the U.S. Census instituted a category, “Mulatto” to indicate persons of mixed racial heritage.https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/race/MREAD_1790_2010.html ]
The Farmer Family of Delaware
Abraham (Abel) Farmer (1795-c. 1830) and his wife Mary Miller Farmer (1790-1881) were from the area around Kent and Sussex County, Delaware, and married about 1820, according to family history. (It had to be after August, since the census for Dagsboro Hundred, Sussex County counts Abel as a single man. Map of Dabsboro Hundred at left. Map, Pomeroy and Beers Atlas (1868), The Delaware Geological Survey, https://www.dgs.udel.edu/delaware-1868-hundreds-maps). Abel and Mary had five children under the age of 10 when Abel died around 1830: Henry (1820-1883), Joseph (Josiah) (1823-1871), John (1825-1903) Catharine (1827-1850) and Nancy (1829-1882) 13.
Some family history notes that Abel was in Wayne County, Michigan when he died in 1830; however, it is more likely that his identity was confused with a descendant of the same name who died in Wayne County at a later date. Assuming Abel died in Delaware before the 1830 census, it is conceivable that his young family would be living in a relative’s household at the time of the count. There were no Farmers noted in that census, but several with Mary’s family name (Miller) in Kent County, where she was born. However, only one of them, John Miller (n.d.), possibly a brother or cousin, was head of a large household of free people of color whose ages and gender match the range that correspond to Mary and her children. By the 1840 Delaware census, Mary was head of her own household and four of her children are with her. One family member was employed in agriculture, possibly her son Henry or John. By 1850, her son John was head of household, and she lived there with all her adult children 14.
The Farmer family unit experienced significant change in the next few years. Some time after the 1850 census, Catharine died. Within just a few years, the remaining Farmers were joined by several other families of their community in a major migration from their traditional home to faraway southern Michigan. Led first by Joseph (Josiah) Farmer and his family in 1856, they were all established in Michigan by December of 1858, when John Farmer married Margaret Durham (1825-1900). Soon afterward, Nancy Farmer married William H. Dean (1835-1926), fellow Delaware migrant, in Wayne County in 1860 15.
Mulatto, Black, or “Delaware Moor”
In the U.S. Census for 1820 in Dagsboro Hundred, Sussex, Delaware, Abel Farmer was marked as a ‘Foreigner’ (e.g., Native American). By contrast, in 1840, when Mary was identified as head of household, she and her children are categorized as ‘Free Persons of Color.’ And, in 1850, the family is categorized as “Mulatto"16. But none of these records tell the real story of their ancestry very well. It happens that the Farmers and Millers were part of a unique blended racial and cultural group known as the “Delaware Moors.”
The “Moors” traced their roots to the early 18th century, when the intermingling of Lenni-Lenape and/or Nanticoke Indigenous people, enslaved or freed African Americans, and Europeans resulted in communities of free persons of color in the area of central Delaware and near New Jersey. One tradition suggests that their European ancestry was from 18th century Spanish pirates evading authorities. This is said to be the origin of the name, “Moors.”17 [Left-An unknown family of Delaware Moors. https://bethelburyinggroundproject.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/moors.jpg ]
People belonging to Delaware Moor communities remained in the same geographical area of Sussex and Kent Counties of Delaware for generations, intermarrying within large extended families. The Moors set themselves apart from other communities of color, and resisted efforts to group them with other people of mixed-race ancestry. In the early to mid-20th century, they received attention from anthropologists, who described the community as a kind of “clan” who valued their blended ancestry as special and distinctive. In 1914, the State of Delaware agreed, recognizing “Moor” as a special designation of race that was relevant to election rights and the voting process.18
Nowadays, the people formerly known as “Delaware Moors” are incorporated within the Nanticoke and Lenni-Lenape tribal confederation, underscoring the significance of the Native American component of their ancestry.19
The Melting Pot of Michigan
With their strong family affiliation as Delaware Moors, it makes sense that when the Farmers, Millers, and Deans migrated to Michigan, they would remain in close proximity. This is borne out by their relocation to the western Wayne County area in the 1850s and beyond. They continued to keep familial and cultural identity intact through intermarriage once they moved. But why did they leave Delaware, their ancestral home, when they did? Why not twenty years earlier, or later? Why Wayne County? Why Michigan?
These are questions we local historians sometimes forget to ask, when we can be so intent on just getting the facts right in the first place. But it can make all the difference in understanding the personal response to the forces behind these such disruptive life events. If we consider that the most common reason for migration is economic and/or socio-political, it helps us gain perspective by looking at the environment and precipitating events behind such upheaval. A more compelling reason likely exists for migration than simply “seeking a better opportunity.” [Right-Farmer, John. Map of Wayne County, exhibiting original land purchases…(1855) Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012593158/]
In the 1850s, it appears that free people of color were leaving Delaware and other states bordering slaveholding states due to intensifying racial pressure and social restriction. Mounting discrimination and Jim Crow laws were bringing multi-racial communities under increasing scrutiny in the years leading up to the Civil War. Even the well-established, law-abiding Delaware Moors had begun to feel the racial bite of forces that were polarizing the country. Under these circumstances, Michigan was an attractive option. Already building a reputation as a haven for freedom seekers fleeing enslavement, it seemed a safe place for people of color to live and raise their children. Furthermore, it had a robust agricultural economy, a future with railroads and waterways, and needed migrants who knew how to farm and were willng to work hard. A recently published 1855 map of Wayne County by noted cartographer John Farmer could have played a role as well; it laid out the county’s farmlands and landowners, a handy bit of information for migrating farmers to have.20
The migration wave of Delaware Moors to Michigan took over twenty years, and involved hundreds of individuals. But a few families led the way in 1856, and one of the first, if not the very first, was the son of Abel and Mary Farmer, Joseph (Josiah) Farmer and his wife Elizabeth (Eliza) Miller Farmer (1826-1871).21 When Josiah and Eliza migrated to Michigan in late 1855 or very early in 1856, they settled in the farmland of Nankin Township in western Wayne County (now Westland). With six children under the age of 15, the couple soon had their 7th child in their new home in February of 1856. Eliza and Joseph had four more children in Michigan. It is this particular Delaware Moor family and its descendants that figure into Birmingham’s remarkable Black and Native American history. [Left-Detail, Nankin Township, Wayne County, showing the 30 acre parcel owned by Josiah Farmer in Section 15. H.C. Belden & Co., Map of Wayne County (1876). https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/micounty/3928152.0001.001/41?rgn=full+text;view=image. (Note nearby location of Dean family, fellow Delaware Moors.)]
Josiah and Eliza’s family grew and prospered in their new community. Fellow Delaware Moors the Millers, Perkins, Counselors and Deans also located in the vicinity. The Farmers worked hard, and by the 1870s, had acquired 30 acres of prime farm property in Nankin Township. Their relations likewise acquired property nearby, continuing their community’s farming lifestyle and tradition.
Brothers and Sisters
The effect on this large family was to gradually lead to physical, if not emotional, separation. Some of the Farmers briefly tried their hand at industrial trades nearby; some stayed at home, remaining unmarried; others connected to Delaware Moors who were living in Ontario, Canada, and married and lived there for a time. A few remained in Nankin Township in the latter part of the 19th century, marrying outside the immediate Moor community, but maintaining ties to their Delaware roots. The 1880 census shows the eldest brother, Abel, as head of household. As the century came to a close, John Farmer and his wife Elizabeth Highgate Farmer (1852-1930) ultimately settled in the Midland, Michigan area around 1880. At the time, small scale farming was still a major occupation in mid-Michigan and there were ample opportunities to continue the agricultural life they had known. They led the way for the later relocation of several other family members.22 [Right-John Farmer relocated to Midland Michigan around 1885 after living for a time with other Delaware Moor families in Ontario. Other Farmer families soon followed. Family information and photo, Harris-Jackson Flagg Family Tree, Ancestry.com.]
Elizabeth Abigail (“Abbie”) Farmer (1869-1903) was the last of the Farmers’ eleven children. She saw her parents and older siblings die as she grew up. But Stephen (1863-1939) Eugene (1866-1936), and especially Joseph Farmer (1861-1912) kept an eye on their youngest sister. They continued to remain in touch, even though Stephen had relocated to Midland around 1880. But even beyond that, the connections of Joseph, Abbie, and Eugene also extended to their spouses, and to a place—the small village of Birmingham in Oakland County. Abbie was the central link that brought everyone together in Birmingham. First, she became acquainted with Abraham “Abe” Harris (1863-1950), part of the large and prosperous Black and Native American Harris family of Royal Oak, free Black pioneers who settled Oakland County in the 1830s. (The Harrises, their heritage, and their connection to Birmingham into the late 20th century will be the subject of A Tale of Four Families: The Black History of Birmingham, “Part III: The Harris Family: Black Pioneers of Royal Oak”). [Left- Abbie Farmer]
How Abbie and Abe met is uncertain, since Abbie lived miles away in another county and it appears there were no extended relatives in common. But they were wed, first on November 14, 1893, (officially) in Birmingham, and then the next day at the Farmer home in Nankin Township. Abbie was 24 and Abe, 30. They settled in Birmingham, initially renting, and later owning a house and property. In the census of 1900, they were categorized as Black. 23 And, as we shall see later, they were not the only people of color in the village at the time. [Right-Abraham Harris]
Joseph, like Eugene, continued to farm in Nankin for a few more years. He remained single, and continued to run the family farm and support his older unmarried siblings as they aged. However, he also seemed to have a different view of his future. He kept in close contact with Abbie and Abe in Birmingham. As a result, he became acquainted with his future wife, Clara Blevins Taylor (1876-1920) some time before 1898. Clara had grown up in Birmingham with her adopted African American parents, George and Eliza Taylor, who had farmed in the area for decades. The Taylors had purchased property and built a home in Birmingham in 1893, around the time of Abbie’s marriage to Abe. The Taylors and Farmers (and another Harris relative in town) were certainly acquainted and likely on friendly terms as the only people of color in town. [Left- Joseph Farmer]
Joseph and Clara’s life followed a different path, however. They lived in Birmingham from their marriage in 1898 through the early years of the new century. George and Eliza were quite elderly and Clara cared for them until their deaths in 1901 and 1902. They were buried in Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery. Abe never remarried; he remained in the community until his death in 1950. Meanwhile, Joseph and Clara started a family, having three children by 1908. They also owned property in Birmingham. In 1909, after the sudden death of their young daughter, they left Birmingham for Midland, joining elder brothers John, Henry, and Stephen Farmer. A few years later, Eugene’s wife also died, and he moved to Midland as well. The Farmer brothers were not reunited long, however, as Joseph died in mid-1912 also. The ties between brother and sister Joseph and Abbie Farmer were the connection point that brought Birmingham into the picture.
Although Abbie’s life was short, she left a legacy that shaped the Black history of Birmingham. She and Abe had a daughter, Lulu Mae Harris Jackson (1899-1975), who remained in the town of her birth and whose descendants bore witness to the experience of being Black in Birmingham through the 20th century. [Right- Lulu Mae Harris Jackson]
As the Harris family portrait history shows. Joseph and Clara’s legacy continued in Midland, where Clara remarried in 1915 into the Proctor family (yet another family descended from the Delaware Moors). Clara, her children with Joseph, and her husband David Proctor (1870-1930) and his son from a previous marriage built a life together. In 1917, they had a child together, Winona Proctor Harrison (1917-2009). Sadly, Clara died in Midland in 1920 of pneumonia as a complication of the Spanish Flu pandemic 25. The Farmer family farm in Midland continued in the family for a long period, and the farmhouse still stands today. Abbie died in 1903 and was buried in Birmingham's Greenwood Cemetery.
Through Clara Blevins Taylor’s first marriage to Joseph and her second to David, the network of people of color in Birmingham, Royal Oak, Wayne County, and later, Midland, was solidified. In Birmingham, the story continued with the Harrises and Jacksons. They lived for decades in the same house in town, yet their story was not well known until recently. Who they were, and how they made a difference in Birmingham will be explored in Part III, “The Harris Family: Black Pioneers of Royal Oak,” soon to be published by the Birmingham Museum.
The Birmingham Museum wishes to extend its gratitude for the generosity of Sheryl (Jackson) Ross for sharing of the Jackson family story, about which more will be said in Part III. Significant research contributions were made by Donna Casaceli, George Getschman, John Marshall and Jacqui Patt.