Detroit's Underground Railroad History & Historical Sites
Story by Frances Fabian-Moore | Photos by Second Baptist Church courtesy of the church
Welcome to Detroit, an international beacon of hope and freedom, unlike any other place in the world.
If that doesn’t sound like the Detroit you know, what if I told you that over 50,000 people – enough to fill Ford Field – escaped slavery and fled to Detroit on the Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad was a network of routes throughout the U.S. that led to Canada, where slavery was outlawed and everyone had equal protection under the law. Because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slaves captured in the northern U.S. could still be sent back to their slave owners. Detroit's "stations" (or hiding spots) were essential in the path toward freedom because of its close proximity to Canada.
Why was the Underground Railroad important?
Owning humans was legal in America until 1865, 100 years after the nation was founded based on principles of freedom and equality. Africans were enslaved by Europeans and subjected to the Triangular Trade, where traders transported captives from Africa to the Americas and Europe. African slaves were forced to live on their owner's land to farm or provide other services like weaving, cleaning, and masonry without compensation or the option to leave. The industry of slavery continued for hundreds of years and set the framework of the American economy and social order. This was the basis of what many call “the war against thy own neighbor”, the Civil War. The Underground Railroad was created as a way to help slaves escape the horror of their conditions in the south and escape to freedom in the northern U.S. and Canada.
How did the Underground Railroad Work?
This secret system wasn't always underground, and it wasn't an actual railroad. Conductors were guides that led freedom seekers to the next safest hiding place, and station masters fed and housed them for a short time before their daring departure. Movies show sensationalized versions of these risky capers, but it's important to note that the decades of success of the Underground Railroad is credited to how smartly the persecuted hid in plain sight. These freedom seekers or pilots would disguise themselves, hid as cargo, travel through tunnels, and even trek along river banks to avoid the scent of hound dogs.
Maps were rarely available, so escapees used maps sewn into quilts, directions disguised as songs, star constellations, or even the moss on trees to determine a northern bearing.
The Underground Railroad persisted for over 40 years until the end of the Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment, which made abolition official. The Underground Railroad consisted of about 3,000 members of various origins and denominations, who by 1861 helped 75,000 people find freedom–many of which escaped through Detroit.
Next Stop: Midnight
For so many who were brought or born here under the tyranny of slavery saw Detroit as the light toward a brighter future. Detroit was known as Midnight, and the final stop before reaching Canada–a country that outlawed the practice of slavery. Michigan is important in that legacy, and Detroit is the embodiment of freedom’s unbroken spirit. Which gives new eyes on the meaning of our Spirit of Detroit, doesn’t it?
Underground Railroad Historical Sites in Detroit
There are still several historical sites in Detroit where you can literally stand in the spaces where escaped slaves persevered to reach freedom.
Gateway to Freedom Marker: Located in Hart Plaza, this statue is undoubtably an international symbol of freedom, overlooking the Detroit River. You see children behind the monument, beckoning others to join as a conductor guides this group to safety.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church: Started in 1839 as the Colored Methodist Society, it was instrumental in the Underground Railroad at both of its early locations, but the impressive congregation currently stands on 5050 St. Antoine St.
Second Baptist Church: Croghan Street Station is in the basement of Second Baptist Church in what is now Detroit’s Greektown neighborhood. The street the church is now on was honorably renamed after Rev. William C. Monroe, who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad at this particular stop. This basement hiding spot was refuge to about 5,000 escaped slaves.
Mariner's Church: A sanctuary for seamen seeking spiritual refuge and was conveniently located steps away from the Detroit River. When the church was moved in 1955 to make way for a new civic center, construction workers discovered a tunnel that went under the river to Canada that was used in the Underground Railroad
George DeBaptiste’s Home: Born a free man, this entrepreneur and statesman helped former slaves escape to freedom across the river from Detroit to Canada. He purchased a steamship piloted by a white man that was disguised as a commercial vessel, but was really used to transport slaves across the river. Although his home is no longer standing, the site is marked at East Larned and Beaubien street. DeBaptiste is also buried at Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery.
Finney Hotel: The Finney Hotel once stood on the southeast corner of Woodward and Griswold street of downtown Detroit. Seymour Finney was a tailor, who later became a hotelkeeper was deeply supportive of the abolitionist cause. He served the cause as a conductor long before talks of reconstruction. His historic marker is located on the northeast corner of State and Griswold.
Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill: The building that houses this sports bar is rumored to have once been a part of the Underground Railroad (and Prohibition for that matter). There is a tunnel below the bar that is believed to be an escape route during both periods in history.
City Tour Detroit: Book their Detroit Underground Railroad walking tour and you will be able to retrace the steps of former slaves. This tour includes a powerful reenactment by actors inside the Croghan Street Station.
Detroit Historical Museum: The Doorway to Freedom exhibition walks visitors through Detroit’s entire history as part of the Underground Railroad. One part of the exhibit allows visitors to literally walk the path to freedom on an experiential trail.