Ypsilanti is rich in African-American history, as documented in “Unconquered Souls: the History of the African American in Ypsilanti,” by Albert Prince Marshall.
One of Marshall’s favorite subjects in African-American history was Elijah McCoy, a 19th Century inventor famous for his lubrication devices used on the railroads of the day. McCoy’s father, George McCoy, was a slave in Kentucky, but was freed. He fell in love with a woman still in slavery, and arranged for them both to flee via the Underground Railroad, which brought them to Canada by way of Ypsilanti.
In 1851, the family returned to Ypsilanti from Canada, where Mary Starkweather, a prominent local abolitionist, encouraged McCoy to grow tobacco on her husband’s farm, located approximately where the present Cornell Street intersects North Huron River Drive.
McCoy grew the tobacco, and made cigars to sell in Detroit and Wyandotte. Several historical accounts sources say that McCoy had a false bottom in his wagon, allowing him to help smuggle escaping slaves from Ypsilanti to the Canadian border.
Congress Street, Ypsilanti
Soon after he returned to Michigan from Canada, George McCoy moved his family, which included Elijah McCoy and several other children, from the Starkweather farm to a house in the City of Ypsilanti. The McCoy house is now gone, but it was probably located in what is now the first block of Congress Street west of Michigan Avenue.
The area now consists of student apartments and homes.
One of Elijah McCoy’s sisters, Anna, recounted how her mother would sometimes tell the children not to go near the barn on the grounds. She once spied an unknown African American girl by the barn. In later years, she realized her parents had been hiding runaway slaves heading for Canada.
Her brother, Elijah, studied in Scotland before returning to Ypsilanti, where he developed some of his famous inventions. He later moved to Detroit.
Mark Norris house, 213 North River Street, Ypsilanti
Mark Norris came to Ypsilanti from New york in 1828 and built a house on North River Street in 1833. Mark Norris and his brother Justus Norris, were associated with the anti-slavery movement.
Mark Norris became a community leader, with interests in flour mills, an iron foundry, the Bank of Ypsilanti, and a hotel. His home still stands and is now divided into apartments. Local lore claims the house, which has a now-closed connection to a series of tunnels, was a stop on the Underground Railroad “station.”
However, there is no firm evidence that the house was actually a stop for fleeing slaves. The tunnels were built for drainage, according to a story in the Ypsilanti Press in the 1960s.
Brown Chapel AME Church, 401 South Adams, Ypsilanti
Built in 1904, this example of neo-Gothic architecture traces its roots to an African American Methodist Episcopal congregation that formed in 1843. Members originally met in homes, then in a livery stable on the site which was torn down to make room for the present chruch.
Brown Chapel is the oldest African-American church in Ypsilanti and the second-oldest AME church in Michigan.
Since 1953, the church has sponsored an annual Brotherhood Banquet, bringing together many different community members to foster brotherhood.