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Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve earns national Network to Freedom designation

Known for its quiet serenity, scenic lake, 5-mile walking trail, bird-watching opportunities and many other draws,Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve in Brooklyn, Michigan, now also will be recognized for its connection to the Underground Railroad. The National Park Service recently accepted Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Such designation is aimed at the places with significant ties to the Underground Railroad, the effort of enslaved African Americans to become free by flight from their bondage.

The Watkins Farm was owned by early settler Royal Watkins (1788-1876), who was fervently opposed to slavery. From the time the farm was established in 1834, Royal Watkins and his wife Sally employed African and Native Americans. One employee was John White, formerly known as Felix White, who had escaped enslavement in Kentucky and was the target of an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt. 

Watkins Lake bench
Watkins Lake bench

The plot to capture John Felix White began in the fall of 1847. Kentucky slave-trader George Brasher assembled seven men to help locate and capture White. They had been told they’d find White working at the Watkins Farm. Instead, with the help of the area’s most prominent Underground Railroad activist Laura Smith Havil and, John White escaped capture. The man the Kentuckians found working in the field was a white field hand sent out in disguise. When confronted, Royal Watkins said, “I suppose he is in Canada, as I took him, with his trunk, to the depot, yesterday, for that country.” 

The designation places the site in a permanent database that includes sites, facilities and programs that have a verifiable association to the Underground Railroad. Its mission, “through collaboration with local, state and federal entities, as well as individuals and organizations, is to honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide,” according to the Network to Freedom website. Designated as a state park in August 2016, the 1,112-acre Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve is Michigan’s newest state park and is jointly managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Washtenaw County.

“The DNR takes great pride in being able to help preserve, honor and shine light on the importance of the Underground Railroad in American history,” said Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. “The designation recognizes the site’s cultural and historical significance and brings national attention to Michigan’s role in the Underground Railroad and the abolition of slavery.” 

The Watkins farm now joins 25 other Michigan sites and programs officially connected to Underground Railroad history through the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission and the national Network to Freedom. “Southeast Michigan was a critical link in the Underground Railroad, as it was the last leg in a treacherous journey for many enslaved people seeking freedom in Canada,” said Coy Vaughn, director of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission.

“The WCPRC is honored by the designation of Watkins Farm as a national Network to Freedom site and proud of its role in preserving this important aspect of the nation’s history.” The Watkins’ Italianate Civil War-era home is still standing, but it’s not part of the park or the Network to Freedom listing. Park officials are committed to exploring and developing opportunities to integrate the Network to Freedom designation into its interpretive offerings. 

Underground Railroad virtual learning – through Sept. 30 The Underground Railroad is a pivotal part of Michigan’s history, as enslaved African Americans found refuge in the Great Lakes State. Anyone interested in exploring more about Michigan’s role in the Underground Railroad is invited to join in the third annual Underground Railroad Heritage Gathering, through a series of virtual learning opportunities – free and open to everyone – taking place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during September. The Michigan Freedom Trail Commission and its partners, the Wayne County Community College District and Michigan History Center, will use the Zoom platform to offer panel discussions, local research, tips for researching local Underground Railroad history and more topics. Download the schedule of sessions, presenters and registration links.

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