Before You Were Here: the abolitionist movement in Ann Arbor

BY SARA LYNNE THELEN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 2, 2008

Today, the intersection of Huron and Division Streets offers hectic traffic, local news, delivery pizza and gyros.

But in 1836, the corner lot now occupied by The Ann Arbor News was a First Presbyterian Church, which served as headquarters to the Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society.

The Society was one of Ann Arbor's many contributions to the abolitionist movement 25 years before the Civil War.

Seventy-five anti-slavery activists from around the state gathered at the inaugural meeting that November to adopt 14 anti-slavery resolutions. One of the members present was Ann Arbor resident Guy Beckley.

Beckley, a local reverend, played a large role in Ann Arbor's anti-slavery activism, serving on the Executive Committee of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 and served as the vice president in 1845.
In 1841, he became the publisher and co-editor of The Signal of Liberty, the nationally distributed and recognized abolitionist newspaper.

The paper succeeded The Freeman, the abolitionist newspaper that was printed in Jackson, Mich.

Out of the Presbyterian Church, Beckley and co-editor Theodore Foster published stories about the horrors of slavery and the lives of fugitive slaves who were traveling through Michigan to Canada.

Beckley, who lived on Pontiac Trail with his wife Phyla and their eight children, also opened his house to slaves traveling from the South on the Underground Railroad.

If caught, Beckley faced up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine under the federal Fugitive Slave Act.

Sixteen-year-old Caroline Quarlls, the first slave to travel Wisconsin's Underground Railroad, was said to have stopped at Beckley's home on her way to Canada. In a book of Wisconsin History, her travel partner Lyman Goodnow wrote that in Ann Arbor, “we were entertained by the editor of the Abolitionist paper published in that place."

Beckley helped traveling slaves, co-operating with other stops in Southeastern Michigan until he died in 1847. His home, the Rev. Guy Beckley House at 1425 Pontiac Trail, is still standing today.