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Detroit and the Underground Railroad

Aug 24, 2015

  

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. But the end of slavery in the United States wasn’t official until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in December of 1865. The end of slavery also meant the end of the Underground Railroad. Detroit was one of the last stops before freedom for thousands of former slaves. 

Abolitionists used speeches and created songs to try to persuade people to help end slavery in the U.S. But some abolitionists also took action, smuggling runaway slaves out of the country. 

Leading abolitionists came to Detroit to debate their different approaches, including a famous meeting of Fredrick Douglass and John Brown.

Ken Coleman is a historian and author who's written about African-American history in Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“They met at the house of a third abolitionist, an African-American in Detroit named William Webb," said Ken Coleman, an author and historian, adding, “So, there is a history of Detroit proper being a station, if you will, in the Underground Railroad.”

Some historians say the fiery John Brown, who wanted to arm African-Americans to begin an insurrection, didn’t come to Detroit alone. It’s said he brought a wagon-load of escaped slaves to a church, a last stop before freedom.

“At Second Baptist Church, the state’s oldest African-American church, there is a section of their tour where they actually show you where African-American slaves would hide until they were able to make the journey across the river to Canada,” Coleman explained.

The Second Baptist Church of Detroit is located in Greektown at 411 Monroe Avenue.

Bobbie Fowlkes-Davis is a church historian and tour guide at the Second Baptist Church of Detroit.

“John Brown brought a wagon-load through here because he was with the fellow who were going to a meeting at the Webb house,” she said during a tour of the church.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Brown and Fredrick Douglass did not agree on the use of violence. Just a short time later Brown raided a federal armory to distribute weapons. He was captured and later executed.

As she guided us into the basement of the church, Fowlkes-Davis explained the term “Underground Railroad” was code. Terms from railroads described the system of escape.

“A station was any place of hiding. This church was a station. The station master is anyone who has authority to let you hide. That’s the pastor of the church. A conductor is a person who is going to lead the train. On the Underground Railroad, you are the train,” she explained.

Fowlkes-Davis says the church elders felt it was their obligation not only to teach the Gospel, but to teach African-Americans to read –which was illegal in most of the nation- and to be part of the Underground Railroad.

“To hide them, shelter them, and point them the way to freedom,” she said.

One of the prominent African-Americans in Detroit at the time was George DeBaptiste. He bought a steamship which ferried people across the Detroit River. It also smuggled many escaped slaves to Canada.

Steps to the basement of the Second Baptist Church of Detroit where escaped slaves were hidden. While the street in front of the church is now Monroe, in the 1830s, the street name was Croghan.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

While Michigan law was not always friendly to African-Americans, there was an active abolitionist movement throughout the region.

Ken Coleman says Detroit was a natural last stop.

“It was where black people were; it’s where more progressive thought was and I think the proximity to freedom being the width of the river, probably had a lot to do with that,” he said.

It’s estimated that the Second Baptist Church of Detroit alone helped as many as five thousand people cross the river to freedom.

Only a handful of historical markers note Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad.

But, there is one significant sculpture in Detroit. On the riverfront at Hart Plaza in downtown you can find a large portrayal of George DeBaptiste pointing the way to freedom for a group of escaped slaves. On the Windsor, Ontario side of the Detroit River is another sculpture, completing the freedom story.

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.