'Flint was a stop': A local historian shares Flint's connection to the Underground Railroad

Local historian and researcher Kathryn Hunter Williams looks over a map and points out the trails runaway slaves took to freedom when arriving in Michigan.

"Here's Detroit,” she says. "Here's Flint right here. It would stop here, here, and here."

In Michigan, it was known as route or trail six. Williams points to the lines on the map labeled with the number six.

"You see six, six, six," she said.

By the thousands, slaves were escaping the South looking for refuge and freedom in the North. Williams describes it as "escaping that hell hole." She says it was no joke. It is considered by some as America's original sin against black people.
"It was really a horrible thing to be involved in or to be a person have total control over you or could kill you with impunity or take your babies from you," Williams said.

She spent years looking into the role the city of Flint played in the original civil rights movement known as the Underground Railroad. She follows on the map the trails used to get out of slavery through Michigan.

"Several trails from the South and Flint was a part of it. Flint was a stop. It was a stop," Williams said.

The Underground Railroad was not a mode of transportation, but a network of people and places who provided safety, secrecy and shelter for runaway slaves. Williams said they were escaping many times with nothing.

"They came up here without shoes, no coats, nothing and ran up here," she said.

Most of the time they traveled under the cover of night in disguise to throw off slave catchers.

"You know, there are different ways that they would bring people through like wagons and call them potatoes. Wagon of potatoes or bag of potatoes and it's actually slaves in there," Williams said.

Runaway slaves looking for hope and refuge in Flint found it at a house owned by Michigan's 19th governor, Josiah Begole. The house with huge porch pillars originally sat on the corner of Beach and Court streets in Flint, which is currently a church parking lot.

During her research, Williams learned of this information from the descendants of Begole, who told her the story had been passed down through the generations.

"They knew from their history that he had an underground railroad in their home," Williams said.

The house once owned by Begole, which served as Flint's local headquarters for the Underground Railroad, was moved from its original location in the 1930s. It is believed Begole bought the house in 1857, seven years after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
The law made it illegal to help escaped slaves, so Begole was taking a great risk.

"Yeah, he was governor and that's one of the reasons it had to be a secret, because if it was found out that he was helping slaves he could have gotten whipped, fined or put in prison. You didn't do that back in those days, but he did,” Williams said.

Harriet Tubman is the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. She made more than a dozen trips from the South, helping to free more than 70 slaves. But, Williams said slaves were escaping long before Tubman led dozens to freedom.

"She wasn't the first one who started that -- was going on anyway. They were always escaping," Williams said. "Because, No. 1, like I said, the horrible parts of slavery will make you run."

Most of those who traveled what has been called route or trail six to freedom entered Michigan from Ohio, first stopping in Detroit.

"And then from there somebody would take them from there on up through Flint to Saginaw and carry them on out,” Williams said.

In 1840, Robert J. Cromwell hitched a ride on the Underground Railroad from Missouri. He settled in Flint around 1846. His story is documented on a historical marker on the lawn of the Genesee County Courthouse at Saginaw and Court Street in Flint.

Williams said Cromwell, a barber, lived in Flint as a free man.

"Until he sent for his mother and some say his daughter," Williams said.

She believes that once Cromwell sent for his family, his master got an idea of where he was and sent slave catchers to find him. According to Williams, Cromwell ran to Detroit.

"They were going to do a trial and everything but the people, white people, got him out of here and to Canada,” she said.
Slavery is one of the darkest periods in American history. Most accounts say it began in 1619 when 20 or so Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va. It is believed that from its inception, slaves were escaping with the help of people of all races who were advocates of equality.

The Underground Railroad helped make freedom a reality for thousands. Williams described what a stop on the Underground Railroad was like for runaway slaves.

"They could stop, rest and refresh themselves. If they got babies, deal with the babies, you know give them clothes, all of that. Then they move on," she said.

Because slavery was the law of the land at the time, there isn't a lot of written documentation about the Underground Railroad. Aside from few historical markers in Mid-Michigan, there are not any local museums to showcase that time period and the role Michigan may have played.

Williams no longer runs her traveling museum, but she has documented her research findings in her book "The Stop," which she says can be found in the reference section of the Flint Public Library.