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MARQUETTE COUNTY — In honor of February being Black History Month here’s a look at some of the history of African Americans in the Upper Peninsula.
In 1741, a girl named Veronique, her father Good Heart and her mother Marguerite were the first documented African Americans living in the Upper Peninsula. They were a family of slaves.
African Americans weren’t as widely used for slavery in Upper Michigan at the time. Russell Magnaghi is a history professor emeritus at NMU. He says, “The French in particular used Native American slaves because they were readily available where if you started importing black slaves they had to come through Canada, up the St. Lawrence river and so on.”
He says the African American slaves in the U.P. often had unique tasks. Magnaghi says, “You would have the slaves and then hire them out to be canoe paddlers.”
There’s no documentation about specific underground railroad locations in the Upper Peninsula but history shows it helped slaves from the south get here to Upper Michigan.
According to the 1860 census, 164 African Americans were living in the U.P. at the time. 65 of them came from Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and other states where slavery was still legal.
The largest populations were in Marquette, Ontonagon County and Houghton. Slave catchers did come to Michigan to try and bring African Americans back to the south. But, it was too difficult for most of them to get all the way up to the Upper Peninsula.
Cook, laborer and carpenter were some of the occupations early African American settlers did in Upper Michigan. However, over time they became business owners and scholars.
Gaines Rock in Marquette is named after one of the first African American families who made the U.P. their home after the Civil War.
The first hotel on Mackinac Island was owned by an African American family. A brothel in Calumet was run by an African American woman.
Plus, two African American women, Charlotte and Bessie, were among the first graduating class of Northern Michigan University.
Magnaghi says, “Charlotte passed away of tuberculosis and Bessie she taught math and went on to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.”