- Students at the Young Leaders Academy got a visit from the great, great, great granddaughter of Caroline Quarlls, the first documented runaway slave in the Wisconsin Underground Railroad.
“There is nothing more empowering than knowing who you are,” stated Simmons.
“Unfortunately, a lot of African-Americans cannot go farther than a great grandparent.”
Simmons, a Detroit native, visited 7th and 8th grade classes at YLA to discuss her rich ancestry. She revealed her lineage and relationship – through Caroline Quarlls’ side of the family – to writers Langston Hughes and Mark Twain, and George Wythe, whose signature is on the Declaration of Independence.
Aiyanna Keys, an 8th grade student, said the presentation made her realize the importance of her heritage. “Before I didn’t know being in Milwaukee was a big thing,” she said. “It’s a part of my history as well as others.”
“I felt pretty touched,” said 7th grader Cortez Childress. “But then, I started to think about the struggles they had, and it made me think of what can I do to keep our history alive.”
In 1842, when Caroline Quarlls was 16, she escaped from a life of slavery in St. Louis. She was the daughter of Robert Pryor Quarlls, whose father was a plantation owner, and Maria, a slave on the plantation. Caroline Quarlls was fair-skinned with blue eyes and long black hair, according to Simmons. Eventually, she fled to Milwaukee where she met Deacon Samuel Brown, one of five founding fathers of Milwaukee, who helped her hide from bounty hunters on his farm. Now, where Brown’s 20-acre farm once stood, is a portion of Brown Street Academy, Johnsons Park and Alice’s Garden.
Letters Quarlls wrote to Lyman Goodnow, a man who escorted her from Milwaukee to Waukesha (known then as Prairieville), are preserved at the Civil War Museum in Kenosha.
Simmons explained that there is a school of thought that the Underground Railroad, as a form of resistance against injustice, marked the beginning of the civil rights movement.
The Quarlls’ Underground Railroad story has been written as a play, “A Midnight Cry: The Underground Railroad to Freedom,” which ran at Milwaukee’s First Stage Theater in January 2003. Additionally, a 3-D mural depicting Wisconsin’s role in the Underground Railroad was added to the Marquette Interchange during its reconstruction in 2008, along the freeway overpass on Fond du Lac Avenue. Simmons attended the mural dedication.
Simmons was brought back to Milwaukee by Fieldhands and Foodways, a program of Alice’s Garden. Fieldhands and Foodways celebrates history and culture, and teaches farming, food preparation and folkways of the African-American and African Diaspora to students and community members.
Simmons visited Brown Street Academy, St. Joan Antida High School, Milwaukee County Historical Society, Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, Alice’s Garden and Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison. Neighborhood residents were invited to meet her at a community reception at Brown Street Academy.
Currently, Simmons is the executive director and president of the Detroit River Project, a nonprofit organization that does research, and promotes cultural heritage tourism in southeastern Michigan, southwestern Ontario, Canada, and the Upper Midwest. She is writing a chapter of a book entitled “The Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Freedom and the Underground Railroad,” about Caroline Quarlls’ road to freedom.
“I repeat the story of my ancestors for others who can’t talk about their own,” said Simmons. “People like to call it African-American history,” she added, “but it’s American history — a piece of history that’s been left out of the history books.”