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After more than 150 years, the legacy of a thriving Black community in Cass County continues on

Calvin township map
Bonine Research Library, Underground Railroad Society of Cass County
150 years ago, Calvin Township was the only majority-Black town in Michigan, and was the heart of a thriving Black community in Cass County.

In 1849, the story goes, four brothers were freed from slavery, and given plots of land. This was a surprise to them. The land was chosen by their former master, because it was near a settlement of Quakers. And because there were already some free Black farmers living nearby. They arrived in Michigan in the dead of winter.

Maurice Sanders is a descendant of one of those four brothers. He grew up hearing stories about them from his grandmother, Edna Sanders.

"And she’s always mentioned that when the slaves — the four brothers that came up — were given 40 acres of land, the land was full of trees," Sanders says.

So they had to buy tools, to clear the trees and build shelter.

Some didn’t survive the cold. Others went into debt to their Quaker neighbors and lost their 40 acres.

But some of the descendants held on, and they helped build the earliest, and one of the most prosperous, Black communities in Michigan.

Cornelius Lawson
Bonine Research Library, Underground Railroad Society of Cass County
Cornelius Lawson, supervisor of Calvin Township in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and a relative of Bill Lawson, who still lives and farms in the area.

Booker T. Washington visited the area after the turn of the century and wrote about it, marveling at the success. [You can read his article here]

Calvin Township had a Black supervisor, a Black trustee, a Black-owned lumber mill, and several Black-owned farms that stretched for hundreds of acres.

And that’s the way it still was when Beverly Young was growing up.

"We had several restaurants, four or five gas stations," Young says. "We had three stores, we had two bars."

But then, she says, people started moving away. They went to the bigger cities for bigger jobs. Businesses closed.

And, to Maurice Sanders, that’s not all bad.

"You know, I remember the good ol' days," he says. "But the good ol' days were not as good as the days we’re having now."

"I remember the good ol' days. But the good ol' days were not as good as the days we’re having now."
Maurice Sanders, descendant of early Black settlers in Cass County.

Sanders' parents were among those who left. He grew up in Detroit, spending only his summers in Cass County on his grandparents’ property. He has idyllic memories, playing ball, going on wagon rides. But he also heard the stories of the harsh realities of trying to make it as a farmer.

Moving on, he says, allowed people to have a better life.

But the Black history of Cass County, it’s not just history.

Beverly Young
Dustin Dwyer
Beverly Young, Vandalia village president, at the Bonine House in Vandalia.

Beverly Young walks up the stairs of the Bonine House, a house her grandmother once cleaned for a living.

The Bonines were a Quaker family. Outside the second floor window, Young can see the barn that was once used as a hiding place for people escaping slavery.

Around her at the Bonine House are collections and displays showing the area's history. Downstairs, a crew is busy painting, restoring the home. The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County has been collecting the histories and restoring the home. Young is a member, and she's also president of the village where this home sits, the village of Vandalia.

"I’m an old fashioned girl," Young says, shrugging off the idea of ever leaving Cass County. "I’ve raised both my daughters there and lived there all my life, and probably’ll never move away."

The tradition of Black farming in the area also lives on.

Bill Lawson
Dustin Dwyer
Bill Lawson, on the property that's been in his family for nearly 140 years.

"I’m the only one of that era that wanted, really, to be a farmer," says Bill Lawson.

He was born in Calvin township, and always loved farming, he says. Growing up, he knew a neighbor who owned a farm, and owned an airplane. It became Lawson's dream to do the same: have a successful farm, and own an airplane. Now, in his 80s, he has both.

Lawson traces his history in Cass County to 1853. The land he farms now, is just over the county line, in Van Buren county. It’s been in his family since the 1860s. He walks me around, pointing out the snow covered fields that stretch a mile in each direction.

"All the way to them trees is mine," he says, pointing to the horizon.

"I bet you get lots of people trying to buy it off of you," I say, marveling at the property.

"And I just keep telling them, keep walking," he says. "Keep walking."

This spring, Lawson says he’s going to have a brass plaque made, and put it on a rock out front. He already knows what it’ll say.

"The descendants on this farm are Black farmers who have been here since 1863, to this day of 2022," he says.

To this day.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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