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Family of slave that settled in Michigan donates 170-year-old freedom papers

Back in the mid-1800s, a slave by the name of Frank Demas purchased his freedom from a Kentucky slave owner. Demas later settled in Michigan and 170 years later, the document that set him free has survived -- thanks to his family. His family has passed the document, called a manumission, down from generation to generation and now, the great-great-great grandson of Frank Demas has donated it to the Archives of Michigan.

The manumission, as well as some of his Demas’ wife’s belongings, are now on display at the Michigan Historical Center in Lansing.   

Benjamin Hall, the great-great-great grandson of Frank Demas, joined Stateside to talk about the priceless donation and what it means to his family.

“We always referred to it as the ‘freedom papers’ in our family,” said Hall, who lives in Eaton Rapids. “But something that I found out with a bit of research, that it wasn’t that uncommon for slaves in Kentucky to have side jobs. A lot of times, a lot of them managed to save up enough money to purchase their freedom and that’s what Grandpa Frank did.”

Hall’s research has not yet produced the name of the slave master, or the amount that was paid to purchase his grandfather’s freedom, but the story of how he ended up in Michigan is a little more clear. After purchasing his freedom, Demas tried to buy his wife’s freedom multiple times. After her master kept taking her back, he helped her escape to the north.

The two used the Underground Railroad to find their way into Canada, and then into Michigan through Detroit. In order to avoid being caught, they changed their names to Thomas and Merry Willis when they crossed the border.

Willis eventually settled in Mason, just south of Lansing, and passed away five years later.   

More than just preserving an important historical document, the freedom papers have come to mean a lot to Hall personally. Growing up bi-racial in Eaton Rapids, this discovery that was passed on to him by his father has helped him understand his family roots.

“I’ve been on a mission to find out who I am ethnically and who I am as a person, and I spent a lot of time in my life wondering if I was black. Wondering if I was white. Trying to figure out exactly where I fit in,” said Hall. “A lot of this has helped lay my mind to rest and settle on the fact that I’m an American. I am. I was raised in a farming community by a white mother and step-father and did a lot of soul searching on my own to figure out who I am and that’s kind of what I’ve settled on. My family is a true American family story.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about the freedom papers and what Hall hopes people will take away from the exhibit at the Michigan Historical Center.

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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