Former integrated schoolhouse to be preserved by local group

Published 11:21 am Friday, August 11, 2023

CASSOPOLIS — A local historical project is moving forward with a new plan.

The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County announced it is changing its plans for Brownsville School No. 1. Located at 20559 Osborn St. in Cassopolis, 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.  

Rather than restore the school as originally planned, URSCC will preserve the c. 1840 original building. It will repair the foundation, roof, floor, windows and anything else that needs repair, but will keep the original structure as is, as much as possible.

“We have many reasons for this direction, but the primary one is our mission to tell the story of Underground Railroad and its legacy in Cass County,” wrote URSCC Treasurer Cathy LaPointe in a letter to stakeholders. “Integrated Brownsville School is a living legacy of the UGRR, and we want to keep this precious building as built, to tell that story. We have many one-room schools in Cass County. Red Brick and Geneva Schools have been restored.  They are sitting empty, not used for anything.  Other schools are available for restoring. These schools can easily tell the story of early Michigan prairie education, but needs someone to step up and lead this effort. URSCC is not in the one-room school business, we’re about the UGRR.”

Brownsville School is a legacy of the Underground Railroad, operating primarily in Calvin, Penn and Porter Townships, from the 1830s to 1850s. More than 1,500 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 more than 100 Black-owned properties, and four one-room schools, Brownsville School No. 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 URSCC hopes to complete repairs on Brownsville by mid-year 2024 and open to the public, with plans to hang photos of classes of Brownsville and other integrated schools of Cass County on the walls and display documents that tell the history of Brownsville School No. 1.  LaPointe said the project will cost more than $150,000.

The organization is beginning the process of making a documentary about the Underground Railroad and its legacy in Cass County, with plans to debut the film at Brownsville during next year’s Underground Railroad Days.

“We hope you’re not disappointed with this change of focus,” she said. “You can walk into restored one-room schools all over Michigan, and in Cass County.  But you can’t walk into an original c. 1840 school, integrated from the day it was opened until closed in 1957.  URSCC thinks Brownsville School No. 1 was the first and longest integrated public school in Michigan, and perhaps the country.  We choose to let Brownsville tell its story on its own.”

Those wishing to donate can do so on or or send a check to URSCC PO Box 124, Vandalia, MI  49095.