Photo by Kenzie Kraft

By Deborah Meadows

In 1826, a young girl was born into slavery. Her name was Carolyn Quarlls, and she lived in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s been said that Carolyn was the daughter of her owner and was gifted to the owner’s sister, Carolyn’s aunt. Perhaps she was a wedding gift — a perfectly acceptable and frequent practice within families whose wealth was gained on the value of people such as Carolyn. 

The only way Carolyn could be free was if she was granted freedom by her owner, but Carolyn had little control in that regard. Self-emancipation was viewed by several thousand enslaved people as the only means of taking control of their lives through wit, courage, and determination. The journey of self-emancipation is better known as the Underground Railroad — the system of routes by which the formerly enslaved traveled to Canada, where freedom was legally guaranteed. Carolyn would one day include herself among those who made this difficult decision.

Elsewhere in 1836, during the dry cold month of November, a convention was held in Ann Arbor. This gathering of men convened to form the Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society. Reverend Guy Beckley and Theodore Foster served on the executive committee and published an anti-slavery paper, The Signal of Liberty, from 1841 to 1847. Within the paper, amongst ads from local merchants, were reports of self-emancipators briefly visiting our village before continuing their travels to Canada. Rev. Beckley had a reputation for denouncing local citizens tolerant of slavery and agitated loudly for its abolishment. Beckley and Foster would have undoubtedly known that editors of anti-slavery papers were often victims of violence. In fact, Elijah Lovejoy lost his life attempting to save his press for a third time by an angry mob in Alton, Illinois — which was also a Free state. 

Carolyn knew the river town of Alton, Illinois well. It was a short ten-mile boat ride across the Mississippi from her home in St. Louis. Carolyn might have gazed across that river, keenly aware that freedom was very close.

On July 4, 1842, while Beckley and Foster were in their second year of publishing, and the country celebrated over 60 years of independence, Carolyn began her northward journey at the age of sixteen. It started with a demoralizing incident. Carolyn was observed looking at her reflection in a mirror by her mistress. Upset by this, the mistress physically attacked Carolyn and cut off her hair. Carolyn was maturing into a young lady; the actions of her mistress sent a clear message. As long as Carolyn was under that roof, she must never cross the line or forget her “place.” Carolyn was in no mood to tolerate additional assaults. She devised a plan and asked her mistress permission to see a “sick friend” in town. Permission granted, Carolyn bundled her few belongings, threw them out a window, and retrieved them upon leaving the house headed for the river. She wisely used what her father gave her, a fair complexion, to purchase a ticket for the steamboat from St. Louis to Alton without arousing suspicion.

Over the next several weeks Carolyn would come into contact with several people, black and white; some had her best interest at heart, others did not. Upon arriving in Wisconsin, she was taken into the fold of a loose network of folks willing to assist, but who had minimal knowledge of the Underground Railroad. One within their group, Lyman Goodnow, agreed to transport Carolyn to safety. They never seemed far ahead of a posse intent on capturing Carolyn for reward. Along the journey Carolyn traveled by foot, laid concealed under hay in a horse-drawn wagon, and endured heavy rain at night and dusty trails by day. She spent a few nights inside homes, and at times wore a disguise.

As Lyman would write in his remembrances in the 1880s, “at Ann Arbor we were entertained by the editor of the Abolitionist paper of that place,” confirming Rev. Guy Beckley’s involvement in Carolyn’s journey. The next stop from Ann Arbor was Detroit, the last stop on the Underground Railroad and just another boat ride across the Detroit River to freedom in Canada. 

Carolyn would marry and set down roots in the small village of Sandwich, Ontario, where some of her descendants still reside. Rev. Beckley would die of sudden illness, and The Signal of Liberty would fold in 1847. The clerk who sold the boat ticket to Carolyn in St. Louis was sued under the Fugitive Slave Law and ordered to pay a hefty fine for unknowingly assisting a fugitive.

Although Carolyn probably spent no more than a few hours in our city, her story resonates as just one narrative in the long struggle for freedom. No matter who you are or where you’re from, freedom is an ideal we all cherish. The next time you’re cruising about, drive past 1425 Pontiac Trail, the home of Rev. Guy Beckley. Imagine the outspoken editor scribbling notes about this journey as described by his courageous young visitor, Miss Carolyn Quarlls. Pause and reflect. Recognize that Black history is American history, and American history is our story.

The Journey to Freedom Underground Railroad tours offered by the African-American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw includes the Rev. Guy Beckley House, thanks to the Van Renterghem and Steinberg families. We invite you to reserve a seat on our September 19th tour, or schedule a private tour. 

Research for this article, and a photo of Caroline Quarlls, is available at the Wisconsin Historical Society and in the book The Underground Railroad in Michigan by local author Carol E. Mull.

Founded in 1993, our mission is to preserve, collect, and exhibit cultural and historical materials related to the life and work of African Americans in Washtenaw County. Deborah Meadows serves on the Board of Trustees, chaired by Debby Mitchell Covington, and volunteers as docent for their Journey to Freedom Underground Railroad tours.