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From Slave City to Freedom’s Gateway: Detroit’s Underground Railroad

Kristine has a B.A. in journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. specializing in American history from the University of Michigan.

The "Gateway to Freedom" statue on the Detroit River points to way to freedom in Canada for those escaping slavery.

The "Gateway to Freedom" statue on the Detroit River points to way to freedom in Canada for those escaping slavery.

The city of Detroit is famous for its ties to Motown music and the automotive industry. What has been virtually forgotten, however, is the important role it played in the Underground Railroad that helped many enslaved individuals escape to freedom in Canada.

Codenamed “Midnight” because it was the last stop on the Underground Railroad before crossing the mile-wide Detroit River into Canada, Detroit was one of an estimated 200 “stations” in Michigan. Between the 1820s and 1965, thousands of slaves were led by “conductors” on the Underground Railroad through Detroit and on to freedom.

From Slave City to Salvation

A largely overlooked detail in Detroit’s history is its initial ties to slavery. For the first 120 years of its existence, Detroit was a city that allowed individuals to own slaves. According to the Deadline Detroit article “Slavery Is Detroit’s Big, Bad Secret. Why Don’t We Know Anything About It?” slavery played a role in Detroit’s evolution into a major city.

Many of the suburbs, roads, and schools that surround Detroit still bear the names of slaveholder families. Among these names are Macomb, Abbott, Cass, Hamtramck, Dequindre, Groesbeck, and Livernois.

According to the Deadline Detroit article, the city’s first mayor, John R. Williams—whose name is honored in two city streets, John R and Williams—was a slaveholder.

The Catholic Church in Detroit also participated in slavery. It was not uncommon for priests to not only own slaves but also to baptize them. In 1800, at least one slave is known to have assisted in the construction of St. Anne’s Church, still located on St. Anne’s Street in Detroit today.

The Fugitive Slave Act

When Michigan became a state in January of 1837, slavery was outlawed in the state constitution. That same year, Detroit’s Anti-Slavery Society was founded. These abolitionists organized campaigns against the institution of slavery and in opposition to northern newspapers—including The Detroit Free Press—which routinely accepted and published ads for the recapture of escaped slaves, according to the Detroit Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Detroit.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that all that runaways, even those reaching free states in the North, could be captured and returned to their “owners.” Canada, however, prohibited the return of former slaves and offered any who reached their shores liberation, according to Encyclopedia of Detroit. Under the Act, any individual aiding escaped slaves, even if they resided in one of the Northern states, could be fined or even imprisoned if caught.

Detroit’s Anti-Slavery Society

Formed by prominent Detroit Black citizens like Robert Banks, William Lambert, and Madison J. Lightfoot the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society also included well-known White citizens such as Edwin W. Cowles, Robert Steward, and George F. and A.L. Porter. Shubael Conant, the Society’s first president, is still honored today with the Conant Gardens Historic District bearing his name.

The Society demanded that slavery be abolished nationwide. They also focused on “the elevation of our colored brethren to their proper rank as men,” according to the Encyclopedia of Detroit.

The group would eventually give rise to more well-known abolitionist societies—some of which operated in secret—that would use more radical means in the fight against slavery. These groups would become integral in establishing stations in the Underground Railroad.

A map of the Underground Railroad leading to the "stations" in Detroit.

A map of the Underground Railroad leading to the "stations" in Detroit.

Underground Railroad Societies

The Colored Vigilant Committee of Detroit was formed on December 20, 1842. Organized by prominent black residents of Detroit such as George DeBaptiste and William Lambert, this organization took the fight against slavery a step further by helping more than 1,500 fugitive slaves escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad during the 1850s.

Lambert was also a founder of the African-American Mysteries (also called The Order of the Men of Oppression) that operated in Detroit. This clandestine group used flags, lanterns, and verbal language codes to carry out its mission. They would also use handbills and newspaper ads encrypted with Underground Railroad symbols to communicate messages.

Baptiste, who was born a free man in Fredericksburg, VA, was an entrepreneur and a known statesman in Detroit. He purchased a steamship, the T. Whitney, that he disguised as a commercial vessel. Unable to hold a pilot’s license because of his race, he hired a white man to pilot it and regularly deliver lumber to Amherst, Ontario. At the same time, the vessel would also transport slaves to freedom in Canada, according to the article "Detroit’s Underground Railroad History & Historical Sights" on VisitDetroit.com.

Doorway to Freedom

The Underground Railroad in Detroit was not only conducted through private homes, but taverns, barns, and churches were also used as “stations.” “Conductors” along the railway would conceal the runaway slaves—often referred to as “passengers” or “baggage”—at great personal risk until they could be spirited across the river to Canada, according to the Detroit Historical Society article “Doorway to Freedom – Detroit and the Underground Railroad.”

The Role of Detroit Churches

Churches played a crucial role in helping escaped slaves. Founded in 1839 as the Colored Methodist Society, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church served as a station on the Underground Railroad at both its early location and its current site on 5050 St. Antoine St., according to Visit Detroit.

Located only feet from the Detroit River, the Mariner’s Church was an ideal location for a stop on the Underground Railroad. When the church moved to its current location on Jefferson Street in 1955 during the construction of a new civic center, workers discovered a previously forgotten tunnel that led under the river and directly into Canada, according to Visit Detroit.

The Second Baptist Church in Detroit’s Greektown area served as the Croghan Street Station of the Underground Railroad. The street on which the church sits has been renamed in honor of Rev. William C. Monroe, a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

It is estimated that over a 30-year period, 5,000 escaped slaves came through this station on their way to freedom, according to Visit Detroit. The congregation’s work in the Underground Railroad network was well-known, and they were assisted by famous abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.

History Remembered

Detroit’s historic role in the Underground Railroad is commemorated by the Gateway to Freedom Statue on Hart Plaza overlooking the Detroit River. The statue features a conductor pointing the way across the river to several escaped slaves, while children behind them wave and encourage others to take the journey to freedom.

Detroit may have begun as a slave city whose remnants are still embedded in the names of her streets and suburbs. Her redemption, however, lies in the history of the individuals and organizations who risked freedom and safety as conductors on a secret railway, helping thousands of souls escape the bonds of slavery for freedom across a river.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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