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Home to an early Anti-Slavery Society, Niles was one of the first stops along the Underground Railroad in Michigan for escaped slaves traveling from Evansville, Indiana, and Madison, Kentucky, then east across Southern Michigan to Detroit and Canada. An approximately eight-block African American neighborhood developed around Ferry Street starting about 1846.
Today, it includes the Ferry Street School, a one-room schoolhouse constructed in 1867 for African American children, Michigan’s first African American Freemason Society of 1857 (later renamed Prince Hall Masonic Lodge), and is home to two church congregations, the Second Baptist Church (today the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church), founded at the corner of Sixth and Ferry Streets in 1849, and the Franklin AME Church on Sycamore Street established in 1888. Houses fill the surrounding blocks just to the northeast of downtown. The Ferry Street neighborhood consists of an eight-block area of approximately 30 resources.
The Ferry Street District was home to a number of African American families that made significant contributions to Michigan’s history. Photographs of some of the homes in the district were included in the Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress published in 1915 as part of a national exhibition to showcase the accomplishments of African Americans.
One of Ferry Street’s most notable residents was Lottie Wilson, the first African American graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose childhood home still stands in the district. A newspaper report from the period states that her father used their living room as a gallery to display her paintings. In 1902 Wilson’s painting of Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth was chosen by President Theodore Roosevelt to hang in the White House. Lottie Wilson was also a suffragette who challenged the White-dominated movement by asking them to take up the cause of African American women and the discrimination they faced in public accommodations.
Other significant residents included Reverend John William Hackley, a former slave who settled there in 1848, and Isaac Burdine, an activist and educator.
Funded by a National Park Service Underrepresented Communities grant the project will include a context on the history of African Americans in Niles, a survey of the Ferry Street neighborhood, and a National Register of Historic Places nomination. The project will begin in February 2023.
For more information on the Ferry Street Historic District project, contact:
Amy L. Arnold, Preservation Planner
State Historic Preservation Office
firstname.lastname@example.org or 517-582-1477
For information on the National Register of Historic Places visit https://www.nps.gov/nr