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Detroit: The Last Stop On The Underground Railroad

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Part X

By Cheryl Brown

Photos by Jon Gaede


The fifth annual Underground Railroad field study tour returned to Detroit after two days in Canada.


Detroit was the most active area for freedom seekers because of its proximity to Canada and because of the network of Blacks, Whites and Indians who helped them.
Our home base was the beautiful Ponchatrain Hotel located near the Detroit River. The river had to be crossed by the freedom seekers, however their safety was still not guaranteed.
On the river pointing across to freedom land is a recently unveiled statue of freedom seekers eyeing freedom just across the river. The companion statue, on the Canadian side, expresses the joy and thanks that was felt by them once they reached freedom.
The Underground Railroad for Detroit began in 1830 after Canada’s Governor Simcoe welcomed freedom seekers. It was a full 25 years before the Civil War. The code term for travel to Detroit was "Freedom Unlimited" or "Midnight Express". Early conductors were, William Lambert, a tailor and UGRR fundraiser; George DeBapiste, a steamboat owner who many times ferreted freedom seekers across the river; agents, Dr. Joseph Ferguson, Robert Pelham and Williams Anderson, the latter two were founders of the Plain Dealer Newspaper.


Detroit, like many older cities, has markers that tell the story of the city’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. There is the site where John Brown and Frederick Douglas met with several Black Detroit citizens to discuss ways to abolish slavery.
Seymour Finney was a tavern owner and an important stationmaster who also owned a barn. While freedom seekers hid in his barn, the slave catchers that were in the tavern were drowning their sorrows in liquor or cavorting with Finney provided postitutes, many times lamenting that they could not find whoever it was they were after. Mr. Finney would tell them he knew how difficult their jobs must be while all the time hiding the people they were looking for.
The First Congregational Church (a White congregation which moved from Wayne St. now Washington Blvd) and Second Baptist (a Black congregation) were also original stations on the Underground. They historically had holding areas in the cellars of both churches. Although the group was unable to visit Second Baptist, the First Congregational Church created a dramatic recreation of a slave escape in their living history museum. The recreation, created in honor of Detroit’s 300 anniversary, took groups of participants through an authentic escape experience.


In groups of ten, identified by wrist bands symbolic of shackles, participants were led into the sanctuary and from there, just like the days of old, the song Steal Away was softly sung by the conductor. The dramatic re-creation in the church’s cellar was fully designed with stations and live actors. The wait with the old lady (Pastor Rev. Lottie Jones-Hood) who was too old to seek freedom, the signs and signals, the songs, prayers and the smells and finally trek across the Detroit River were riveting. An important part of the re-creation is the debriefing which helps participants deal with the anger and confusion and serves to clear up misunderstandings about enslavement of Africans in America.


A short visit to the Dr. Charles Wright African American Museum features a slave ships model.
On to the Shrine of the Black Madonna, a bookstore, museum and interactive site. The site is one of a chain of bookstores and religious institutions. The church considers it a ministry to inform people about the African/Black culture in Africa and other parts of the world.
The storyteller showed educators how stories could be used as a useful teaching tool. There was also an opportunity for them to purchase needed classroom materials.
As the tour progressed the next stop was the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, one of the most remarkable places in the nation. The occasion was their annual Emancipation Day. Activities included, 102nd Colored Troop camp and re-enactment, the parade of the Buffalo Soldiers, storytelling at the Susquehanna Plantation, and exhibits at the Hermitage Plantation compete with slave quarters. There are quilters, games from that time period, and the smell of the soldier’s wives cooking corn bread, greens, and chicken over an open fire.
Henry Ford was an avid collector. He collected items from every part of America, including two plantations. He even had George Washington Carver come to the Village and stay overnight in a cabin he built just for him. Ford collected inventions from Lewis Lattimer, who developed the filament for Edison’s light bulb, Garrett Morgan’s traffic light, and Granville Woods’ electric trolley car.


The museum takes many days to complete.
Next week will be the final installment of the Footsteps To Freedom Field Study Tour. It will take a look at our last stop in Columbus, Ohio: The Kelton House.

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