Museum Shares Stories of Birmingham’s Earliest Black Families

Museum Shares Stories of Birmingham’s Earliest Black Families

(Birmingham Museum, Feb. 8, 2021)

Birmingham, MI – When George Taylor fled enslavement in Kentucky in 1850, he made the harrowing journey north on the Underground Railroad route to Oakland County.

He worked as a laborer on area farms until after the Civil War, when he met and married his wife Eliza. She had come to Royal Oak seeking her biological mother, from whom she had been separated as a child while still enslaved in Kentucky. By 1893, the Taylors were able to purchase a lot and build a home in the village of Birmingham.

George was proud that they were the first African Americans to own and pay property taxes here, and the couple was active in the United Presbyterian Church (now Birmingham’s First Presbyterian Church). When they died six months apart in 1901 and 1902, they were mourned by the town and buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Their passing was a sad loss and was marked by detailed obituaries on the front page of the local Eccentric newspaper. However, since no grave markers were ever installed, their story faded from memory until a year ago, when it re-surfaced by chance during routine obituary research by local historian George Getschman.

Since that time, funds have poured in to erect grave markers for the Taylors, and museum staff and others have worked to establish more information about the Taylors, their descendants, and their extended family. Property records have been scoured and other documents cross-referenced to attempt to trace elusive information about the Taylors, but progress has been made—in surprising directions.

“We had more questions,” said Leslie Pielack, Birmingham Museum director, “What drew George Taylor to Oakland County, in the first place? Did Eliza find her mother, and why and when had she come to Royal Oak? Were there other family members in the area? What became of the Taylors’ adopted daughter after their deaths?” In essence, she said, what is the back-story, and how do George and Eliza Taylor fit into the big picture?

It turns out that the Taylors were at a kind of confluence of three important African American families in the area, and that their story is the tip of an iceberg of black history previously unknown outside the families themselves. This is due to many reasons, including historians’ past tendency to focus on prominent pioneer founders rather than everyday people, as well as lack of access to documents for research until just recently. But it is also due to the lack of appreciation or de-valuing the contributions of non-whites to area history. From the Birmingham Museum’s perspective, that is about to change. “Our mission is to tell Birmingham’s story,” said Pielack. “And that includes the entire community, and the whole story, if we can discover it.”

It was through researching the Taylors’ adopted daughter, Clara Taylor, that Pielack first noticed a thread that led to a prominent African American family in Royal Oak, that of Hamlet and Jane Harris. While the Royal Oak Historical Society had little information about them, Pielack kept looking. She utilized online genealogical tools to find out more about the Harris family, a large and prosperous African American family whose Oakland County roots went all the way back to wilderness settlement in 1830, before Royal Oak existed. Harris himself was never enslaved, but he is said to have bought his wife Jane out of slavery. The Harrises had a large family who remained in the area, and although the story is still unclear, they seem to have fostered several formerly enslaved people before and after the Civil War, one of whom was Clara Taylor’s biological mother.

The Taylor story links to the Harrises through Clara, but became connected with yet another major black family—the Farmer family of Wayne County—when Clara married Joseph Farmer. “The Farmer family also migrated to early Michigan and apparently were never enslaved. Their history, however, includes marginalization and discrimination in Delaware due to their combined Native American and black heritage,” said Pielack. “Imagine our surprise when we learned just days ago that the Farmers and Harrises are closely connected to the Taylors and Birmingham history as well!” This is thanks to the efforts of local volunteer Jacquie Patt, who identified the graves of Abbie Farmer Harris and Abe Harris, who are buried in Greenwood Cemetery near the Taylors. Patt had recently uploaded this information to an online database that helped Pielack tie it all together. Abbie Farmer was Joseph Farmer’s sister, making her sister-in-law to Clara. She and husband Abe also lived, worked, and owned property in early Birmingham, and their descendants continued to live here throughout the 20th century.

Patt, a long time resident of Birmingham, downplays her contribution to understanding local black history. “I’ve been going through Greenwood Cemetery for years and have felt it is important to research and document the people buried there,” she said. “I just work on my own, photographing markers and doing research to make the information available to others online. I do it because I enjoy it, and I am so happy the Birmingham Museum could use my work to better understand these families.”

Birmingham Museum staff is enthusiastic about doing a deeper dive into the story of the Taylors, Harrises, and Farmers as part of gaining a better understanding of the less well-known aspects of Birmingham’s history. “We realize that there are gaps in our understanding and that we are trying to tell a story from the outside, rather than from inside,” Pielack said. “We have more work to do to place these individuals into the context of their times and our community, and hope to get in contact with their descendants to connect more pieces to the puzzle. The stories may change as we learn more.”

To recognize Black History Month, the Birmingham Museum will be creating a special series of online articles on the three families and their connection to Birmingham history. The series will be published on the museum’s website at https://www.bhamgov.org/history/museum/ throughout the month of February and will become a permanent part of its online educational materials. The museum is also planning related video content in the near future to share over its virtual platforms.

The Birmingham Museum is currently closed to the public, but providing content and educational materials online about Birmingham’s story. We also feature regular social media programs on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TheBirminghamMuseum/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/bham_museum). Video content on our current exhibit, lectures on historic Birmingham, and educational video shorts for adults and children can be found on our YouTube channel at https://www.bhamgov.org/history/museum/lecture_presentation_videos.php Want to know more about us? Check us out at www.bhamgov.org/museum. Or contact us by phone at 248-530-1928.

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