Uncovering Michiana’s Black History: The Legacy of Young’s Prairie

Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 6:23 PM EST
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VANDALIA, Mich. (WNDU) - In part one of this series told you about the moment when Cass County Michigan, known as Young’s Prairie in the pre-civil war days, chose the side of justice during the Kentucky Slave Raid of 1847.

While the fight for freedom was far from over, Young’s Prairie had cemented itself as a place that would welcome Black Americans, whether or not they were seeking freedom or already had it.

16 News Now reporter Jack Springgate is uncovering this Black history with the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County to show us how the legacy of Young’s Prairie lives on in the descendants of those early Black settlers who stayed for good.

Young’s Prairie was more than just a stop on the Underground Railroad for freedom seekers. It was also home to several integrated schools and hundreds of Black-owned properties, and this was all before the Civil War.

In fact, it’s still home to many of the descendants of those original freedom seekers and free Black settlers more than 180 years later.

Some of them are now just learning about their ancestor’s stories, even after living here their entire lives.

Beverly Young has lived in Vandalia for 75 years, but her family has roots in this area dating back to the 1860s.

“The Snelling family were free pioneers back in the 1860s and 70s. They owned about 200 acres of property in Calvin Township,” said Vandalia President Beverly Young.

There are documents listing someone by the name of A. Snelling moving to Calvin Township as early as 1853. That’s where his son, Joseph Snelling was born. He raised a daughter named Louisa Snelling Keith. That woman is Beverly Young’s grandmother.

“My grandmother lived in Brownsville, well we called it Brownsville then. She had two sons. Joseph, which was my dad, Kieth. He was an army vet. She had another son Laurel Kieth who was a Tuskegee Airman vet. They both went to the one-room schoolhouse that was just purchased by the Underground Railroad,” she said.

The Snelling family tree leading back to 1853.
The Snelling family tree leading back to 1853.(WNDU)

She’s talking about the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County. Since 2010, they’ve purchased 4 buildings that are key in telling the history of the Underground Railroad in this area and the history of how Black people were treated when they moved here.

Properties owned by the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County.
Properties owned by the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County.(WNDU)

That one-room schoolhouse, for example, was one of the first of its kind to make education available to anyone regardless of skin color.

“Some architectural experts tell us it was here in the mid-1840s, and it was integrated from the very moment it was constructed. Very rare. Segregation was pretty much the rule even here in the north. So, it was possibly one of the very earliest integrated public one-room schoolhouses in our region, perhaps even in the State of Michigan,” said Friends of Brownsville School Chairwoman Jennifer Ray.

Young says her experience growing up as a Black woman in Vandalia was not like what most other Black Americans lived through in the years leading up to the civil rights movement.

“Racism was not a problem, not in Vandalia. It was mixed. Our friends were white and Black. The racial issues I experienced were after I got married in the mid-60s with job hunting stuff. I was just shocked because I wasn’t used to having racial issues growing up,” Young said.

Her family is closing in on two centuries since first settling in Cass County, but the histories of Black people and the Underground Railroad in this area are only recently coming to the surface.

“It’s more recent. In school, I don’t remember us learning anything about the Underground Railroad. I was involved with Cathy when we first started up here so I’m learning about the Underground Railroad every day,” she said.

The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County is keeping this history alive at the Bonine House, the former home of James E. Bonine. He and many Quakers like him played an instrumental role in providing Black settlers land and opportunity in their new home. He also helped freedom seekers escape the south as a station master on the Underground Railroad.

People can get a glimpse at what life was like on the road to freedom, at the Carriage House across the street. People can see how freedom seekers discreetly made their way from one station to the next at this building, which also sat in clear view for Bonine to monitor anyone who might be approaching to search for them.

The Bogue House is another Underground Railroad Station where folks can see exactly where freedom seekers hid, especially during the pivotal Kentucky Slave Raid of 1847.

We told you about that event in part one, but it also lives on as a mural in downtown Cassopolis, proudly acknowledging the past that led to this community’s present.

This historical event is proudly displayed on a mural in downtown Cassopolis that commemorates...
This historical event is proudly displayed on a mural in downtown Cassopolis that commemorates the spirit of respect and inclusivity that molded this community on August 17th, 1847.(Jack Springgate)

There is so much more Black history to uncover in Cass County that we didn’t have time to tell you about, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeking it out for yourself.

While we can’t change history, we can learn from it and try to undo the impacts of racism in America’s past.

How else are we supposed to come together when we don’t even know what’s keeping us apart?

That’s why we’re Uncovering Michiana’s Black History.