What Northern amnesia can't block out: Slaves helped build Detroit

Oct 15, 2014

If you grew up in Michigan, your history books showed you images of slavery: black men and women picking cotton in the South.

Michigan, we learned, was a very important part of the Underground Railroad, helping African-Americans across the border to freedom in Canada.

But what we weren’t taught was this: Slavery helped build Detroit.

Some of the best-known names used for roads, counties, cities and schools around Southeast Michigan belong to old families who owned slaves.

Bill McGraw dug into "Detroit's Big Bad Secret" for Deadline Detroit.

Credit Ian Freimuth / Flickr

“It’s always (a) surprise, because even well-informed, well-educated people never happened to learn that slavery existed in Detroit for 120 years.”

McGraw says it was a well-established system in Detroit; slavery preceded the arrival of the French. 

The number of slaves in Detroit was considerably smaller than in the South, McGraw says.

“The biggest slave owner in Detroit had 26 slaves, where Thomas Jefferson had 600 slaves during his lifetime.”

McGraw there were also slaves in New York City and Montreal, among other cities. He says it's common to find a collective amnesia of slave ownership in the North. 

*Listen to the interview with Bill McGraw above.