Birmingham’s Connection to the Underground Railroad: George Taylor—Freedom Seeker
by Donna Casaceli, Birmingham Museum
In 1898, George Taylor (c1821-1901) was interviewed for an article in The Detroit Journal, in which he gave an account of his life during his enslavement, his self-emancipation, his flight to Canada, and his eventual settlement in Birmingham, Michigan.
In his account, George states that he was not treated kindly but did not “rebel” until he was 31 years old. The reason for his decision to risk his life for freedom was being publicly whipped. He fled in April, 1855, obtaining a ferry ride across the Ohio river from his brother. Once he landed in Indiana, he was on his own, and traveled by night, using the North Star as his guide. When he realized that his progress was too slow, he started to travel during the day. This, George stated “began his troubles in earnest.” Twice he was run down by bloodhounds, the first time he was able to elude his would-be captors, but the second time he was not so fortunate. He was arrested and taken to a judge, but the judge “whose sympathies were with the abolitionists,” ordered his release.
Trials Along the Way
Other trials included starvation and near death after not eating or drinking for five days. He was found by an abolitionist who kept him safe until he was strong enough to continue on his journey. George eventually made it to Niles, Michigan, the gateway into the state for those entering by the western part of the Underground Railroad. George’s interview gives little detail to his travels in Michigan. But through other resources, we can piece together more of his story on the Michigan Underground Railroad, including a possible stop at the Milligan farm in Southfield, Michigan.
A Southfield Presbyterian minister, Rev. James Saurin Turretin Milligan, gives an account in the 1890s of helping freedom-seekers cross to Canada before the Civil War. Milligan was at the church from 1853-1871, and originally helped transport Underground Railroad escapees directly to Detroit via the Underground Railroad. However, Detroit became unsafe due to numerous bounty hunters, so Milligan instead sheltered freedom seekers on his farm near Twelve Mile and Evergreen until they could be taken across the Detroit River to freedom in Canada. Many came back to work on Milligan’s farm in Southfield. Milligan and fellow abolitionists in the area continue to harbor and support freedom seekers. It is possible that George Taylor followed this very route, was helped by Milligan, and that may explain his later involvement with Milligan and his family.
Life after Emancipation
George’s obituary notes that after obtaining freedom in Canada in 1855, George returned to Southfield just a year later to work as a farmhand. Although this was not apparently on Milligan's farm, it could have been an abolitionist working with Milligan. After the Civil War, George married Eliza, a formerly enslaved person who was emancipated after the war, and they adopted their daughter Clara, who was born in Birmingham. George accompanied Milligan and his family to Denison, Kansas in 1872 to help them move and build a church. In 1880, George, Eliza, and Clara also moved to Denison and were closely associated with Milligan his church. In fact, George donated a clock to the church, which they still have (see at left). This suggests that George and Milligan had more than a casual connection, and that perhaps George was repaying a debt of gratitude, for example, for Milligan's help via the Underground Railroad. The Taylors ultimately returned to Birmingham in 1893 after Milligan retired and moved from Kansas to Pennsylvania.
Settled in Birmingham
After the Taylors returned in 1893, George and Eliza bought property and built a house, becoming the first African-Americans to own property and pay taxes in Birmingham. Their adopted daughter Clara married Joseph Farmer in 1898 and they also purchased property in Birmingham and started a family, with Clara taking care of her parents as they got older. The Taylors became active in Birmingham's First Presbyterian Church when it was established in 1897, and were members until their deaths.
George passed away in 1901, Eliza a short 6 months later in 1902, and both were buried in Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery.