Encyclopedia Of Detroit

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 on April 26, 1837, the same year Michigan became a state. The new state constitution included a ban on slavery. Abolitionists organized to fight the institution of slavery in the South and to agitate against northern newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press, which ran ads for the recapture of escaped slaves despite a ban on the practice.

Prominent black citizens Robert Banks, William Lambert and Madison J. Lightfoot helped form the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society, which included well-known whites like Edwin W. Cowles, Robert Steward, George F. and A.L. Porter, as well as Shubael Conant, the Society’s first president and for whom the Conant Gardens Historic District is named. The Society not only demanded the abolition of slavery, but also focused attention on “the elevation of our colored brethren to their proper rank as men.” Despite a brief existence, the precedent set forth by the Detroit 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 Detroit Anti-Slavery Society, the Colored Vigilant Committee of Detroit was formed on December 20, 1842 by 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 highly secretive organization founded by William Lambert, the African-American Mysteries (also known as The Order of the Men of Oppression), employed more clandestine means of operation to support fugitive slaves escaping through Detroit. These and other abolitionist efforts, by both groups and individuals, assisted thousands of fugitives on their travels on the Underground Railroad in Michigan.

Once the former slaves had been delivered to freedom in Canada, they had opportunities and support there as well. The Refugee Home Society, founded on May 21, 1851, worked to provide donated goods to refugees on both sides of the border and organized a stock company to buy land for formerly enslaved persons attempting to start new lives. Josiah Henson, the model for the well-known character “Uncle Tom,” formed the Dawn Settlement in 1842, offering refugee slaves the opportunity to purchase land, work, and become involved in a community of other refugees. Similar settlements in Essex and Puce, Ontario, were formed in the same spirit, to give refugee blacks a chance to live in 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.



Booklet written about Shubael Conant, 1944 - 2013.048.616

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