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AADL Productions Podcast: Carol Mull and the Underground Railroad

When: October 13, 2009

In this episode, AADL speaks with Carol Mull, a local historian of the Underground Railroad. Carol talks about her upcoming book on the Underground Railroad in Michigan and her work with the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission. Mull also discusses some of the gems she found in The Signal of Liberty, a 19th century abolitionist newspaper published in Ann Arbor. 


  • [00:00:00.00] ANDREW: Hi, this is Andrew
  • [00:00:03.46] AMY: And this is Amy, and this is the AADL Prouduction's podcast.
  • [00:00:08.99] ANDREW: Recently, we talked with Carol Mull, local historian of the underground railroad. She spoke with us about her research into the anti-slavery movement, her work with the Michigan Freedom Trail commission, and her upcoming book on the underground railroad in Michigan. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first started studying the underground railroad?
  • [00:00:25.50] CAROL MULL: Sure, I'd love to. I started studying the underground railroad as part of a job that I was doing for the University of Michigan, the Arts of Citizenship program. We were going into the schools teaching a variety of subjects as part of supplementing the Social Studies curriculum, and one of the subjects, one of the topics, we chose was the underground railroad, and the focus of our work was to use verifiable documents to bring to the classroom, so that young students, and this was for elementary school, so that young students could see where our history actually comes from, so that it isn't made up, but we have resources we use. And so we came into the classroom and we went out first and then came in the classroom with what people already, I think, knew that were historians of this area that there was the Guy Beckley house on Pontiac trail, and then maybe that the Signal of Liberty had been published on Broadway and that was about it. And then we became involved for the African-American Cultural Historical Museum in Washtenaw county, and with them, we all agreed that we wanted to look more deeply into the subject end see what we could come up with, and as soon as we did, we found there was so much more out there, and not only the way of resources, but decendents and places and people. And so it took off from there.
  • [00:01:59.24] AMY: How about the with the Freedom Trail Commission? How did you get involved with them, and can you tell us a little bit about what they've done and what they're planning to do?
  • [00:02:07.27] CAROL MULL: Michigan Freedom Trail Commission came about through legislation that allowed the governor to appoint a group of people who would find ways to both promote and preserve this special history in the state of Michigan, and there had been people who had been doing research for quite some time, but they found that they were remote from each other and that there was no way to really communicate at a statewide level., the work that had been done and the ongoing work. And so this commission came about through just a few people really pulling it together, and I was one of the early people as having been part of the University of Michigan project. And then the people that were mostly over on the western side of the state were really, you know, pushed to make it all happen. So when they were appointing commissioners for the founding commission, I applied and was accepted on the basis of my bringing to the commission my background, which was specific to historic preservation. I have a Master's degree in historic preservation. And so when they made up the commission, they made up people with specific backgrounds that could bring their certain expertise. Just as you can nominate to that National Park Service Network to Freedom program, you can do it to the Michigan Freedom Trail. So we actually modeled our program on the national program, and so we have about a dozen places already listed with the National Park Service and those automatically then, are included in the state listing. In addition, we've been behind promoting a number of conferences bringing people from out of state for lectures, also supporting grant projects, a lot of research and even the preservation of places.
  • [00:04:07.44] AMY: Is that going to continue, given the economic situation at the state level?
  • [00:04:11.91] CAROL MULL: Isn't it sad? It's a challenge. I mean that's how I think we all look at it. Like every other organization affiliated with the state of Michigan, our funding was cut. They reorganized, of course, at the state level, and we were assigned to a different organization than we had been before. The Freedom Trail Commission is now part of the Department of Natural Resources, which seems an unusual fit, but it really doesn't matter to us as long as we still have representation at the state level, and can continue to do what we do. We're all volunteers who are on the commission, so we have things that are ongoing. We had a conference last year. There was just the National Conference in Indianapolis last month, and there's a huge initiative going on right now that we're all very excited about, and it is to designate the Detroit River an International Heritage site.
  • [00:05:14.99] AMY: And there are very few of these.
  • [00:05:17.37] CAROL MULL: And Kim Simmons from Detroit has really taken the leadership. She's one of the commission members in this project, and right now, she's working with several Canadian organizations, Canadian government, of course, Michigan. We have the support, at certain state level, and the commission, of course, is supporting this project. Several institutions of learning, I should say, from the Detroit area are behind it. There are representatives from many of the colleges. And what we're hoping to see is a special place along the waterfront on both sides, where people can come and learn about this important history, and it then would be linked to all the other states that came into the gateway of Detroit when they were using the underground railroad. Right now, it looks like it will probably follow the trail of a person who escaped from Saint Louis named Caroline Quarrels, and she went through, I believe, it's at least five states in her journey, and of course went all the way across the entire state of Michigan, and we don't know most of the places that she stopped on her journey, but one place we do know for sure, was at the Reverend Guy Beckley house in Ann Arbor. So that's going to be featured as part of this huge story that's developing. So this is really big and really exciting. And to think that we're trying to do all this at this time with so little money out there speaks well to the enthusiasm behind the whole project.
  • [00:07:03.51] ANDREW: You already started talk about it little bit, but can you give us a sense of the role and the importance that Michigan and Michiganders played in the underground railroad and the abolitionist movement in general?
  • [00:07:15.95] CAROL MULL: Yes, and I'm glad you asked that question because I think that for too long Michigan was not recognized as it should have been, not only in the northwest region, but across the whole nation. I don't know why this really came about except that some of the most significant leaders in Michigan did not tell their story as others did in other parts of the country. And so I think that Michigan, just the whole history of it, just didn't come through the way it really should have. So now we're hoping to make up for it, and I did write a book that's going to be published in this spring. I expect it to be called "Unshackled The Underground Railroad in Michigan." and I'm hoping that that will make up for the fact that this history has not really been told as much as it should have. We have a very rich history. There were many people involved, both White and African-American citizens who helped and played a very important role in helping people escape, escaping themselves, staying in Michigan to help others, helping with legal issues and resisting in many forms the whole evil, as they called it, of slavery. I found it we just neglected to find some of the resources that were out there, or else people found them but they didn't make it into the public eye as much.
  • [00:08:55.52] AMY: In doing research for your book, you consulted the "Signal of Liberty" up at the Bethany Historical Library, I understand, and as you know, we've just recently managed to put it online. I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about what you discovered in the Signal of Liberty? What is interesting in there, not only with respect to that abolitionist movement, but what is interesting in terms of Ann Arbor history?
  • [00:09:20.16] CAROL MULL: Oh sure. I guess that in all of the research I did over eight years, or something like that, the Signal of Liberty was the most important resource that I used for the state of Michigan, and the reason for that, is that it corroborated so many other resources by having those names of people that showed up in other places as anti-slavery activists. So The Signal might not necessarily tell us that somebody was an underground railroad worker, but when their name shows up, that they were very actively involved in the anti slavery movement by participating in one or more of the several organizations that were founded opposing slavery, then you can draw that as supporting evidence. And there were many people from Ann Arbor who were quite involved. In fact, the founding of the Michigan Anti-Slavery Society happened here in Ann Arbor. It was not necessarily because there were more people from Ann Arbor who were opposed to slavery, but I think that this was a good meeting place because they were a number of people who called for that meeting who were from Lenawee county, many Quakers, especially in the early period, the Quakers were the most involved of any religious group, and they called for the meeting and also with people from the Detroit area and Farmington, there were a number of people. And those people who got together and called for the meeting, obviously were on either side, north and south of Ann Arbor, and this was a good place to meet, and they had access to the Presbyterian Church because there was an anti-slavery minister there at the time, and that was the meeting place. Well, one of the first things that came about, after this two-day meeting, was that they decided they should publish a newspaper. And so we eventually got the "Signal of Liberty" was not the first one published. First we had the "American Freeman" and then we had the "Michigan Freeman" and they were attempted from Jackson county. But it's very hard to publish a newspaper and at the time especially when Michigan was a pioneer frontier. I mean, they didn't have the printing press they needed. They didn't have people who could operate a press, and they didn't have the subscribers to really keep it going. So what happened is that they had agents who were willing to go out there and try to get subscribers, but they just couldn't get enough to keep it regularly published until Reverend Guy Beckley and Theodore Foster took it over and published the "Signal of Liberty" here in Ann Arbor, and they managed to get it to press almost every week from 1841 until 1848. And I think a lot of that was their, just those two men, their dedication. It wasn't just the fact that they built up subscriptions from 500 to at least 1,800 over the years, but that they also raised as much money as they could to keep it going
  • [00:12:56.58] ANDREW: So what led to the dissolution of the "Signal"? What led to the end of that paper?
  • [00:13:02.59] CAROL MULL: I can't say for sure except that, unfortunately and very sadly, Reverend Guy Beckley died at an early age, and it was pretty sudden. So he died, I think it was the end of, I'm not sure, 1846 or 1847. He had left the paper in 1846, and I think there were a number of reasons for his leaving, and of course this is my scholarly speculation if you will, but he had had quite a few differences with the Liberty Party, the political party that was in existence and Reverend Beckley and Theodore Foster were pushing for an agenda, a political agenda, that this community and the Liberty Party itself, did not support at the time. It was basically broadening the platform of the party to go beyond just the issue of slavery, include other things, tariffs and all sorts of other issues like railroad, you know, laws and all sorts of things. And those that opposed really struck out against Beckley for proposing that idea. And I think he did not have the support. He had always been on the executive committee from the beginning, and I think that was a lot of what was behind it. He started getting very involved at the national level in politics. And so I think he was feeling that, okay, I'm going to put my energy into that, but then unfortunately died. And Foster, I think, maybe was worn down a little bit and also, Beckley had been the real fundraiser behind it, and it was incredibly difficult to keep it going. When you look at these issues, you will see repeatedly a begging for people to pay their subscription fees, and every issue has, We will take firewood in exhange, you know, for your subscription rather than money. I mean they were pretty desperate to get people to pay. You'll see it throughout, and it was hard times for a lot of people and they couldn't afford it.
  • [00:15:23.22] ANDREW: Yeah, I just saw one earlier that was a cord of hickory wood for a year's subscription.
  • [00:15:30.12] CAROL MULL: Yep it sounds so funny today, but I guess it was equivalent.
  • [00:15:33.03] AMY: What are some of the other things you found, the advertisements, poems, some of the things that are in there that people should look for?
  • [00:15:41.80] CAROL MULL: Well, I think the advertisements would be fun for most people. For me, I honestly didn't pay a lot of attention to them because I had a job to do in terms of finding all of the important political and anti-slavery stuff. I think that people are going to actually enjoy the political articles. I have never been somebody who really liked to get into politics, but I could not believe the language that they used. I mean these were people who would be sued today for saying the things and writing the things that they did about political opponents. I was amazed by the civic activity. These people were involved in up to ten organizations, and you see these lists, I mean it goes anti-slavery, temperance, all of their church affiliated organizations. And they were passionate, and they're going to meeting after meeting. But I love just reading some of the editorial comments. I mean some of them were quite passionate and disparaging of their fellow citizens, so it makes for good reading. I think that the most fascinating to most people, of course, are going to be the stories of slavery and the escape from slavery. Those, of course, were my interests, and I think they're fascinating.
  • [00:17:10.58] ANDREW: When did you first decide to write a book?
  • [00:17:13.77] CAROL MULL: Well, I decided about two years ago. I guess I've been working toward it for about four years. I've been collecting research and doing research for probably eight years. And I've been teaching. I've been lecturing for a long time, maybe six years and teaching about the underground railroad, and people would say why haven't you written a book, and so I thought, alright, and I started a book about Washtenaw county. And after I was at least, oh, over halfway finished, I thought well gee, I should look into getting it published. And I know nothing about this, and so I went ahead and filled out all the forms that you do. I just looked up online how to send a book synopsis to a publisher. And I did a fifty-page paper filling out all the things you're supposed to do, and I sent it to a publisher that is a big publishing house, McFarland Publishing, that has published several books on the underground railroad by some scholars. And so I sent this on my own to them, and they liked it, but they requested that I make it for the entire state of Michigan. So in my naivete, thought "Oh fine, I can just add some more material." It doesn't work like that. So, basically, I just had to start from scratch really, and use a lot of Washtenaw county as the focus. When I tried to make a point I'd say, okay, Washtenaw county, here is our little micfocosm for this, and I'm going to pinpoint these people, but generally, it was rewriting the entire book. But it's so needed. Everywhere I've gone to lecture and talk and in conferences, everybody keeps saying why isn't there a book. So I figured I know as much as most of the other scholars in Michigan. There are plenty who know more, but I'm going to be the one to go ahead and write the book.
  • [00:19:23.38] ANDREW: Was Washtenaw county really a microcosm, or was there something different about Washtenaw county as opposed to the rest of Michigan?
  • [00:19:32.23] CAROL MULL: Oh that's such a good question, thank you. Washtenaw county was special. There were other places that had more underground railroad activity, and as many, if not more, leaders. Certainly Lenawee county did, and in the western part of the state, especially after the 1840's, there was a much greater African-American settlement. But Washtenaw county was unique in that it really was the hub of all of the anti-slavery activity, in that, it was the place where the Anti-Slavery Society was founded. It was the place where the major newspaper was published, being the "Signal of Liberty" for that entire decade really. No other newspaper before or after was able to sustain more than a year of publication. So people were getting their news about the underground railroad, about the anti-slavery movement, about the Liberty Party, and all sorts of anti-slavery abolitionist movement news to Ann Arbor. This was where it. was coming. Of course, Wayne County with Detroit, had more activity probably than any other place as not only the place where most people settled from much earlier date, because, of course, Detroit was settled first, but then ongoing, and in later years after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, as the gateway to Canada, where people felt they needed to go after that second Fugitive Slave Act, for absolute freedom. But this area with special because of the "Signal of Liberty" I think, more than anything else.
  • [00:21:23.87] AMY: What is one thing that you would like people to know that maybe isn't so commonly known about the underground railroad? What's the most significant thing that you have discovered in your research?
  • [00:21:36.08] CAROL MULL: I discovered so many things I didn't know. I mean from the beginning just understanding basic things that you could be opposed to slavery but not for abolition. I mean there were these basic things that, when I first started, I didn't really grasp that most citizens in Michigan in the 1830's and 40's were opposed to the extension of slavery into other areas of the nation, but they didn't really care about seeing it abolished because they were very afraid that it would tear apart the nation, and they were worried about maintaining a unified place. And there was good reason for that feeling because of the short time that the country had been unified. So just those things like that, the basic things about just my understanding of the whole background of what resistance to slavery was. I mean resistance took many forms from the person who was working on a plantation resisting through not working hard enough, to running away temporarily, to finally making a break for permanent escape, which often was unsuccessful the first time, to actually resisting slavery by completely escaping successfully. I guess I was quite surprised by the number of people taken back into slavery from other places, but it did not find that they were taken back from the state of Michigan, and that's something that was a little surprising.
  • [00:23:21.37] AMY: Can you just briefly tell us about the Crosswhite case?
  • [00:23:24.42] CAROL MULL: Well, 1847 was a year where there were several attempts by Kentuckians to take people back into slavery from the state of Michigan. There had been raids from, you know, a ferry from the 1830's from an early period of people coming into northern states, which were free states, to take people back into slavery. Of course, that's what ended up with the Dred Scott case, was are you free as a formerly enslaved person once you're in a free state, and that had not really been decided. So people who were slave owners or people hired to go catch people, were sent into other states. And so they came into the state of Michigan, especially the year 1847 there were several, and one of those was in Marshall, Michigan, where these Kentuckians came and tried to take the Crosswhite family back into slavery. A children's book has just been written about it. I went to see the lecture last week by the author, and the book is fantastic, that describes in detail what happened. It is one of the few cases where we actually have the court depositions from many people still in existence. You get everyone's point of view about what happened when these people came into town and broke down the Crosswhites' door in the middle of the night and tried to take this family that had been living in Michigan for several years, had had their last child born in the state as a free child. And the family, of course, refused to leave, and the citizens came forward and said, we not going to allow them to be taken out of the state of Michigan. And then eventually, they were rescued and carried off to Canada, and the big Kentuckians were charged with breaking down their door. Then, of course, it went through a whole series of legal cases where there were lawsuits back and forth, and this is all written in the "Signal of Liberty", and it's wonderful reading to follow, but you do have to keep in mind that the"Signal of Liberty" publishers did have an agenda, a certain bias. Their headlines, I think, were "Slavery Outrage" and you know, things like that so, it wasn't totally unbiased, but it's very interesting.
  • ANDREW: So when can we expect to see your book?
  • [00:26:14.98] CAROL MULL: Well, I'm hoping for a spring 2010 publication and, it's going to be called in "Unshackled: The Underground Railroad in Michigan".
  • [00:26:27.00] AMY: To read the "Signal of Liberty" online, go to Signal of
  • [00:26:31.51] ANDREW: You have been listening to the AADL production's podcast from the Ann Arbor District Library.