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A closer look at Caroline Quarlls' journey to freedom

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Caroline Quarlls Caroline Quarlls
DETROIT (WJBK) -

Detroit was one of the key stops on the Underground Railroad as slaves from the South looked north for freedom and a better life.  We take a closer look at one woman's journey and how it has become an important part of Detroit history.

For the thousands who came here to escape slavery, Detroit was known as "Midnight" because across the river you would find "Dawn", the gateway to freedom.

"It is a story of perseverance and courage," said Kimberly Simmons, a descendent of Caroline Quarlls.

A story that is part of the Detroiter's heritage, and now she shares that story with people across the country.  Her great-great-great-grandmother was a woman who was born a slave, but was determined to die free.

Caroline was born in St. Louis in 1826.  Her mother was a slave and her father was a white man.  She was part of the Quarlls family, but she was also their property.  Her grandfather was her owner.

"She was the house maid to her paternal aunt, so therefore she interacted as a kid growing up with all of her first cousins.  They all looked alike, but her first cousins could do other things she couldn't do," Kimberly explained.

But Caroline knew there was more.  On the Fourth of July at just 16 years old, she escaped and boarded a ferry headed to Illinois.  The captain did not stop her because he assumed she was white.

"She literally rode across to freedom.  She just blended in with everyone else," Kimberly said.

However, her journey to freedom was just beginning.  Her owner hired bounty hunters to track her down, so she had to keep going.  A network of all kinds of people black and white helped her escape and led her to Michigan through Ann Arbor and then to Detroit and across the river to Canada.

"She literally had been chased cross country because the bounty hunters were standing on the ferry boat landing watching her being rowed across the river," said Kimberly.

Caroline Quarlls' story is the story of the Underground Railroad.

"It's not really a road and it's not really just a trail, but it is considered a loosely knit network of people helping others gain their freedom," Kimberly said.

That legacy is alive and well in Detroit.  There is a tour inside First Congregational Church of Detroit, which was one of the key stops along the Underground Railroad.  Today actors re-enact the historic journey and offer a glimpse of what it meant to escape to freedom.

Caroline may be gone, but her courage is still celebrated through exhibits like "Doorway to Freedom" at the Detroit Historical Museum and through the work of her great-great-great-granddaughter Kimberly.  She's president of the Detroit River Project and is working to have the Detroit River declared a UNESCO World Heritage site to honor all of those who traveled the Underground Railroad.

"When I tell my story and tell the family's story, I tell it on behalf of those that can't tell it because there are so many other stories like this that just are lost to the ages," said Kimberly.

You can learn more about the fascinating life of Caroline Quarlls Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m. at the Detroit Historical Museum.  For more information, visit www.detroithistorical.org.

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