By Megan Kirk
Detroit’s relationship with slavery, for many, is unknown. However, the city played a pivotal role in the fight for freedom. With its close proximity to a free foreign land, Detroit was a key stopping point for the Underground Railroad. Through faith, education and camaraderie, slaves were able to cross the Detroit River into Canada, thus obtaining permanent freedom.
The city’s history is typically composed of stories of automobiles, music and financial struggles, but its roots extend far beyond the more “modern” parts of Detroit’s 320-year-old story. Established July 24, 1701, Detroit’s foundation is as rooted in slavery as the cotton fields of Georgia or in the sugarcane of Louisiana.
“One thing that people don’t necessarily know is that Detroit was home to enslaved people into the 1830’s. The city had an enslaved population. It wasn’t large like the South, but over the 1700s into the 1800s it wasn’t tiny. At one point, 25% of Detroit households owned someone,” said Billy Wall-Winkle, field curator for the Detroit Historical Society.
Unlike the South, Detroit did not have plantations, but slaves were used for domestic work. Typically trained as shopkeepers and house servants, slavery in the city, in some ways, was less severe.
A unique aspect Detroit offered unlike any other was its closeness to Canada. Just across the Detroit River, slavery was frowned upon as Canadian provinces and territories began to implement their own laws to abolish slavery. Ontario, in particular, passed an act in 1793 to end slavery. American slave owners were also forbidden to cross waters to apprehend runaways.
“One of the major reasons why Detroit is so significant in the Underground Railroad is its close proximity to a foreign nation, to another country. A country that ended slavery before the United States. And it’s a country where the United States Fugitive Slave Law did not apply,” said Jamon Jordan, Detroit historian and founder of Black Scroll Network History and Tours.
The Underground Railroad was comprised of freed Blacks and others who assisted in ushering slaves to free land. Many white abolitionists were credited for helping to free slaves. Yet, little is known about the Black figures who acted as conductors or stationmasters, ran safe houses, and were agents on the freedom train. Detroit was no different.
William Lambert, a key fixture in Detroit’s Underground Railroad, was just one of the conductors on the city’s train to freedom. The successful businessman played many roles, including helping to fund freedom. George DeBaptiste, a free Black man who owned a steamboat helping slaves cross the river, is credited for establishing two secret societies, Colored Vigilant Committee and The Order of the Men of Oppression, that functioned alongside the Underground Railroad.
“When we talk about the Underground Railroad, the focus is on white abolitionists, and they are important and they are to be understood and studied, but they are not the foundation. The leadership, the organizers, the main planners of what goes on [in] the Underground Railroad; the main people doing that are freed Black people,” said Jordan.
These, along with many others, used Detroit’s resources to obtain freedom and to help others do the same. Historical markers are still present in current-day Detroit and serve as reminders of the fight for freedom. Several churches were pivotal on the road to heaven, a term slaves used to refer to Canada. Serving as the headquarters and heartbeat of the Underground Railroad was Second Baptist church. Bethel A.M.E Church and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, all standing today, also served as safe houses along the Underground Railroad.
“You’ve got Black churches — faith and freedom go hand-in-hand for Black people in the 1800s — these are the same thing. So, Black people starting churches are the same Black people who are helping people escape slavery,” said Jordan.
The well-documented escape of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn is tucked in Detroit’s history. Fleeing from Kentucky to escape Lucie being sold into the south as a ‘’fancy girl,” the couple made it into Ohio and then Detroit. The Blackburns were arrested after Thornton was spotted by a white man he formerly worked with in Kentucky. Tried under the Fugitive Slave Act and sentenced to a life of servitude, two women broke into Lucie’s jail cell and used the city’s Underground Railroad to help her reach the Promised Land.
“Tabitha Lightfoot and Caroline French, they went to visit her in jail, the sheriff let them in and when they went to leave, Tabitha Lightfoot changed her clothes with Lucie Blackburn and they all pretended to be crying, overemotional, holding their faces. When they left, Lucie was immediately taken to Canada,” said Wall-Winkle.
Thornton Blackburn’s escape would lead to the first race riot in Detroit.
“Thorn’s escape was more violent as they were determined to keep him and take him South; a group got together and surrounded the jail,” said Wall-Winkle.
Today, there are at least seven documented paths of the Underground Railroad through Detroit. Tours of the route to freedom are offered, allowing people to relive the path to freedom their ancestors may have. Detroit’s history is extensive, and sometimes hidden, yet it must not be forgotten.