In Saginaw, William Quincy Atwood became a wealthy lumber baron but he was born a slave on January 1, 1839 in Wilcox County, Alabama. His father was master of the plantation and a very successful businessman. His mother, Mary, a slave, was an accomplished woman who ran the household, treated the sick, spun, wove and cut clothing and cooked. She learned to read and write when she was 47 years old. She and Henry Styles Atwood had several other children besides William. After his father died, William, his mother and brothers and sisters were freed and money was provided for them to go north and get an education.
In May of 1853, they moved to Ripley, Ohio, where William attended a school for African Americans and then entered Berea College in Ohio.
In 1856, caught up in the excitement of the gold rush, William and his brother John travelled to California where he worked on a steamboat, opened a restaurant and did a little mining.
None of those ventures panned out and he returned to Ripley in 1859 where he taught school. Although exact dates are unclear, he was connected with the Underground Railroad, risking his life to help escaped slaves to reach freedom in Canada.
After the Civil War started, Atwood moved to East Saginaw where he became a timber cruiser, locating choice timber land for prospective buyers. His first land deal made him $4000, a vast sum in those days.
In 1868, he opened a real estate office at the corner of Water and Tuscola and continued in that business all the rest of his life. It later moved to Potter Street.
He built a sawmill along the Saginaw River in 1874 and operated it until 1888, cutting and selling 12 million board feet of saw logs. He also manufactured 25 million board feet of lumber. He sold his lumber in Ohio, Illinois and as far away as Massachusetts and Maryland. The mill was later known as the Patterson Mill and was located “directly across from the Burkart Park.”
Atwood’s shrewd business dealings made him one of the richest men in Saginaw in the late 19th century, but he was also respected and admired for other attributes and achievements.
In 1872, he married Charlotte Echols of Cleveland, Ohio, a well-educated graduate of Salem Normal School who had taught school in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. William and Charlotte had five children: Willie, Freddie, Oliver, Alice May and Lottie. Both parents took a great deal of interest in their education, encouraging them to do well in their classes.
Their home, at the corner of Jefferson and Hoyt, was described as “a beautiful residence surrounded by magnificent lawns…in quite an aristocratic neighborhood.”
He was a student of history, philosophy and the classics and had an extensive library. He also excelled as an orator, was a fine extemporaneous speaker and often toured the state, helping Republican candidates in their election campaigns.
Together with his contemporaries, the Goodridge brothers, he was a founder of the Colored Debating Society. In 1888, 1892 and 1896, he represented Michigan as a delegate-at-large at Republican national conventions and was personally acquainted with Presidents Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley. In addition, he was president of the Michigan Protective Rights League and the only African American member of the Board of Trade.
William Quincy Atwood died in 1910. His obituary described him as “universally regarded with marked respect in Michigan.” The funeral was held at his home with Rev. Wilbur Nash of the First Baptist Church officiating.
In 2002, a memorial plaque was placed at the site of his home by the Saginaw County Hall of Fame and the Juneteeth Cultural Center.
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