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Plans to preserve an early integrated school move forward in Cass County

A decrepit wooden one-room schoolhouse sits in a green field shrouded by trees with orange autumn leaves. Rusted wavy metal pieces wrap the building, covering the glass windows.
Cindy Yawkey
Underground Railroad Society of Cass County
The Brownsville Schoolhouse was fully integrated when it opened its doors in the 1840s, over 100 years before the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case outlawed segregation in schools federally.

The Brownsville school near Cassopolis may have been the first integrated one-room school in Michigan.

The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County bought the Brownsville Schoolhouse near Cassopolis earlier this year.

Built in the 1840s, the school was integrated from the beginning, according to the group Friends of Brownsville School. The 1850 census shows that the school had both Black and white students, and the school remained integrated until it closed in the 1950s.

URSCC president Mike Moroz said the organization wants to make sure future generations can see and learn about the schoolhouse, which is the fourth historically significant building procured by the URSCC.

A red brick building with white wooden exterior supports sits between two green bushes with bright white flowers. A tower like structures protrudes through the front of the roof, it too has white trimming and windows like the sections below it.
Michael Symonds
The URSCC purchased the house in 2010, at the time it was in danger of collapse. Now, it stands nearly fully restored, open to visitors who wish to learn about the houses connection to the Underground Railroad.

The URSCC owns two structures just outside of Vandalia, the Bonine House and carriage house. The house is the residence of abolitionist James E. Bonine, who sheltered freedom seekers in the carriage house just across the street.

These two structures, along with the Bogue House near Cassopolis, still stand as symbols of Cass County's ties to the Underground Railroad.

Moroz said that unfortunately, the county has lost some other key historic buildings, such as the courthouse that was the site of the trial of slave catchers who organized a raid on Cass County underground railroad stations.

“That was a very significant courthouse because it had the trial of the Kentucky Raid of 1847. That was abandoned, turned into a theater at one point in time in the 20th century. And then eventually that was torn down,” Moroz said.

Being in a rural county, the URSCC tends to have fewer donors to appeal to than organizations in metro areas.

Moroz said that and a push to turn old sites to farmland contribute to the loss of buildings.

A white wooden building with greenish blue trimming sits in downtown White Pigeon. Two American flags flank both sides of the front door. A yellow sign reads "1831 White Pigeon Prairie U.S. Land Office 1834" in brown text.
Michael Symonds
Operating from 1831 to 1834, the White Pigeon Prairie U.S. Land Office is the oldest surviving U.S. Land office in Michigan.

Holly Stephenson is with another group, the St. Joseph County Historical Society of Michigan.

Stephenson agrees lack of funds can be a problem for historical groups in rural areas. She adds that there are other issues with restoring or preserving old structures.

“Lots of contractors don't want to deal with it because it requires special skills, special materials, sometimes different kinds of permit work has to be done,” Stephenson said.

URSCC President Mike Moroz said the group would love to restore the Brownsville school.

But for now, simply making sure the building is safe to tour is more realistic.

The group hopes to open the Brownsville building to the public by July 2024.

Michael Symonds reports for WMUK through the Report for America national service program.

Report for America national service program corps member Michael Symonds joined WMUK’s staff in 2023. He covers the “rural meets metro” beat, reporting stories that link seemingly disparate parts of Southwest Michigan.