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Encyclopedia Of Detroit
The Underground Railroad was an 1800s network of assisting escaped slaves on their path from plantations in the American south to freedom in Canada. Detroit was one of the last “stops” on the Railroad, before escaped slaves could find their freedom in Canada.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ensured that even if slaves arrived in free states in the North, they could be captured and sent back to their slave masters. However, Canada, which lay only one mile across the Detroit River prohibited slavery, thus offering slaves full liberation and safety.
Secrecy was essential because under the same Act, even in Northern states, individuals found collaborating with escaped slaves could be heavily fined and sometimes imprisoned. Therefore, flags and lanterns became clandestine signals, verbal language carried code and handbills and newspaper were often encrypted with Railroad symbols.
The Underground Railroad was a secret network of financial, spiritual, and material aid for slaves. Fugitives generally made their way on foot, often at night, from one town to the next. Upon arrival, they were met by sympathizers known as “conductors” or “stockholders”, stock being a term used to indicate faith in the abolitionist struggle. Conductors of all backgrounds risked their livelihood for human freedom by hiding slaves in their houses, barns, attics, cellars, churches, shops and sheds. In direct defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, these brave individuals provided runaways with food and a place to sleep. They also facilitated slaves’ transfer to the subsequent “stop,” or Underground Railroad shelter.
A Detroiter named Seymour Finney was an important Railroad conductor. As the owner of the Finney Hotel in downtown Detroit, he was able to aid fugitive slaves by housing them in his establishment. Outside Detroit, Michigan abolitionists include feminist writer Elizabeth Chandler of Lenawee County. Chandler was a Quaker who convinced members of the church to establish one of the state’s earlier anti-slavery societies.
Dr. Nathan Thomas was an extremely active participant in the Underground Railroad and also the founder of Michigan’s Republican Party. According to his wife Pamela’s memoirs, the Thomas’ assisted between 1,000 and 1,500 runaways at their office/residence between 1840 and 1860. Dr. Thomas would generally transport the slaves to Battle Creek, where they were received by fellow Quaker Erastus Hussey. In addition to his work on the Railroad, Hussey was active in abolitionist politics and started an anti-slavery newspaper called the Michigan Liberty Press.
One of most notable abolitionists in Detroit’s Underground Railroad network was George de Baptiste. Born a free man in Virginia in 1814, he relocated to Detroit as an adult. A respected entrepreneur and business leader, he owned a barbershop and a bakery in Detroit before purchasing a steam ship, the T. Whitney. A clever man and a very active abolitionist, Baptiste used the boat to secretly transport slaves from Detroit to Canada. George de Baptiste also formed a secret organization known as African-American Mysteries or Order of the Men of Oppression, which worked in tandem with the Underground Railroad in Detroit.
George de Baptiste’s church also had a monumental role in the city’s Underground Railroad network. Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, Michigan’s first black congregation, was established in 1836 when thirteen freed slaves split from the First Baptist Church. First located on Fort Street, the congregation moved in 1857 to its current location in Greektown. The church became a vital station on the Underground Railroad, and over 30 years housed an estimated 5,000 fugitives.
Abolitionist leaders including John Brown, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass worked with Second Baptist. Members of the congregation founded two anti-slavery organizations, The Amherstburg Baptist Association and the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Organization. Second Baptist hosted the first “State Convention of Colored Citizens,” which demanded African Americans’ right to vote. The church is also known for establishing Detroit’s first school for African American children. While the original structure has been replaced, Detroit’s Second Baptist Church still exists today as strong voice of justice and unity in the city.
Detroit was one of the most exciting stops on the Underground Railroad, because it was generally the final stop before achieving freedom. There are at least seven known paths that led slaves from various points in Michigan to the Canadian shore and it is estimated that 200 Underground Railroad stops existed throughout Michigan between the 1820s and 1865. The last runs on the Underground Railroad ended in 1865 with the end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment’s abolishment of slavery.