Former integrated schoolhouse to be restored by local group
Published 3:00 pm Wednesday, January 25, 2023
VANDALIA — Underground Railroad Society of Cass County has recently purchased Brownsville School No. 1, 20559 Osborn St. in Cassopolis, MI. This Calvin Township one-room schoolhouse was built in the early 1840’s, and was integrated from the day it opened, until it closed in 1957, making Brownsville School among the longest integrated public schools in Michigan, and perhaps the first.
Friends of Brownsville School has been formed to carry out this project, chaired by Jennifer Ray, retired Cass District Library Director. This group will guide the restoration of the school as a repository of photos and artifacts from all integrated, public, one-room schools in Cass County. Brownsville will also be a demonstration site for Michigan prairie education, inviting tours and education events.
Brownsville School is a legacy of the Underground Railroad, operating primarily in Calvin, Penn and Porter Townships, from the 1830s to 1850s. Over 1500 fugitive slaves, now called freedom seekers, were said to be helped on their journey to Canada. Many Free Black families arrived in the area in the mid-1840s and early 1850s. They bought property, primarily in Calvin Township, and established thriving farms, becoming respected members of the community.
Many descendants of these pioneer Black families still reside in the area. The 1850 census for Calvin Township shows both Black and white children going to school. The 1860 plat map of Calvin Township shows over a hundred Black owned properties, and four one-room schools, Brownsville School #1 is one of them.
URSCC purchased Brownsville School and two acres of property it sits on in November, 2022 from the Richard and Dennis Wooden family, whose relatives went to the school. It has been part of the Wooden family farm since the 1960s and required three years to clear title and zoning issues. URSCC has taken steps to save the structure during this interval, tarping the roof and shoring up the foundation.
The extensive restoration will require funding from various sources. Friends of Brownsville School will take on this challenge, as well as historical research and collecting memorabilia from other integrated, public, one-room schools in Cass County.
“This humble schoolhouse has extraordinary stories to tell, valuable lessons to teach,” Ray said.
“FBS looks forward to assisting URSCC to raising Brownsville’s voice. Come join us!”
If you would like to support this project, or join Friends of Brownsville School, contact Jennifer or go to www.urscc.org