Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Anti-Slavery Society

Prior to the American Civil War, activists in northern cities formed anti-slavery organizations to promote the abolitionist cause. Detroit’s Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1837, the same year that Michigan was formally recognized as the twenty sixth state in the Union. The new state constitution included a ban on slavery. Even though banned, newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press, continued to run ads seeking the recapture of escaped slaves. In response to the continued support of “that peculiar institution,” those in support of abolition began to fight back.

Composed of all male members from Detroit, the Anti-Slavery Society included well-known whites like Edwin W. Cowles, Robert Steward, and George F. and A.L. Porter, as well as Shubael Conant, for whom the Conant Gardens Historic District is named and who was elected the Society’s first president. The Society existed for only a short time, and its primary mission seemed to be expressing strong abolitionist sentiments. However, the precedent set forth by the Anti-Slavery Society gave rise to more abolitionist groups – some public, some secret – that often employed more radical means of aiding their cause.

Following in the footsteps of the Anti-Slavery Society, the Colored Vigilance Committee of Detroit was formed in 1842 among the prominent black residents of Detroit, including George DeBaptiste and William Lambert. This organization helped more than 1,500 fugitives escaping to Canada on the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. Following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, such activities opened sympathizers to legal repercussions.

Another, secretive organization founded by William Lambert, the African-American Mysteries, employed more clandestine means of operation to support fugitive slaves escaping through Detroit. These and other abolitionist efforts, both by groups and individuals, assisted thousands of fugitive slaves on their travels on the Underground Railroad in Michigan.

Once the former fugitives had been delivered through the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada, they had opportunities and support from others there as well. The Refugee Home Society, founded in 1851, worked to provide donated goods to refugees on both sides of the border and offered opportunities for land to fugitives attempting to start new lives. Josiah Henson, the model for the well-known character “Uncle Tom,” formed the Dawn Settlement, offering a community for refugee slaves where they could purchase land and become involved in a community of other refugees. Similar settlements, like Essex and Puce, were formed in the same spirit, to give refugee blacks a chance to form communities of their own in their new homeland.

Beginning with the voice of the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society, the abolitionist cause in Michigan and across the Detroit River found influential and outspoken advocates in the years leading up to the Civil War. The Society’s early example provided a precedent for other organizations, which in turn made Detroit a primary “last station” on the road to freedom.

Written by Brent Maynard



Booklet written about Shubael Conant, 1944 - 2013.048.616

The Sinclair House, a stop in the Underground Railroad, 1975 - 2008.033.357

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