14 Lesser-Known African American Historical Sites in Detroit
Story by Biba Adams | Photos by Second Baptist Church by Bill Bowen
1.4 miles. That is the short distance that stood between many 19th century Black Americans and freedom in Canada.
For many runaway slaves, the shores of the Detroit River would be their last glimpse of life in the country that enslaved them.
Detroit’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad is only one aspect of our city’s invaluable Black history.
Some of Detroit’s historical landmarks are well-known. Places like the Charles H. Wright Museum, and Second Baptist Church are not to be missed on any visit to our city. But, for those who would like an even deeper dive in Detroit’s Black history. Here’s a list of some of our faves.
Be sure to scroll to the bottom to see all of these sites mapped out for easy itinerary planning.
African American Historical Sites in Detroit
1.The Offices of the Detroit Plaindealer
1114 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226
An independent African American newspaper, The Detroit Plaindealer, published its first issue in May of 1863. It closed up shop somewhere around 1895.
Published by brothers Benjamin and Robert Pelham Jr. - alongside Walter H. Stowers and W.H. Anderson - The Plaindealer was the African American voice. “That was our voice,” explained Kimberly Simmons, chair of the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Sites Committee and president of the Detroit River Project, to The Huffington Post. “You had a whole group of people here, and the only way they knew what was going on was the Plaindealer. So it was a huge deal.”
The newspaper’s office was located on the southwest corner of Shelby and State Street. That space is currently occupied by the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. A marker was recently erected to denote the historical relevance.
2. The Alger Theater
16451 E. Warren Ave., Detroit, MI 48224
While it has largely been white-owned, The Alger Theater served what evolved into the diverse historic neighborhood of Morningside located on the near-Eastside of the city.
One of only two remaining intact and unchanged neighborhood theaters, the Alger Theater was granted historic designation in 2009. The designation saved the theater from demolition.
Historically, it was a movie house that eventually showed B-movies in the late-70s and early 80s. However, earlier in its life, popular jazz acts like Dave Brubeck and the Duke Ellington Orchestra played in the 800-plus seat theater.
The Friends of the Alger Theater is a 25-year-old active non-profit organization committed to making the historic theater an anchor of this evolving neighborhood.
3. The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity House
293 Eliot St., Detroit, MI 48201
The home of Gamma Lambda Chapter, the 100-year-old Alpha House near downtown Detroit is home to the third oldest alumni chapter in the history of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
The building was built in 1919 and the fraternity purchased it in 1939. It is currently the meeting location, a museum, and event space for the organization.
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. is the oldest Black Greek Letter Organization in history. It was founded in 1906.
4. Elmwood Cemetery
1200 Elmwood St., Detroit, MI 48207
One of the first fully-integrated cemeteries in the Midwest, Elmwood Cemetery is the resting place for a number of iconic Black Detroiters.
Former mayor, Coleman A. Young; Fannie Richards, Detroit’s first African American school teacher in the public school system; and Dudley Randall, Detroit’s former Poet Laureate, are all resting in this historic location.
Elmwood Cemetery and the Historic Elmwood Foundation launched a self-guided African American History Tour in 2015.
Three people were killed throughout the night of July 25-26, 1967, at the Algiers Motel in an incident during one of the darkest times in Detroit history. A period that the city has still not truly healed from.
As the 1967 rebellion raged in Detroit, several Black male youths and white women were listening to music inside the motel. One youth fired a starter pistol into the air which drew the attention of nearby officers believing they were dealing with many armed rioters.
The resulting police clash and deaths and wounding of seven others enraged the already tense community. The legacy of the Algiers Motel has been preserved in stage plays and films including the 2017 movie, Detroit.
6. The Shrine of the Black Madonna
7625 Linwood St., Detroit, MI 48206
Founded in 1967 by Albert B. Cleage, The Shrine of the Black Madonna was established as a segment of the Black Christian Nationalist Movement. The church is known for its recognition to center African Americans within the Christian narrative – a narrative that was often rooted in white supremacy.
Since its founding, the congregation at The Shrine of the Black Madonna became a powerhouse in Detroit politics instrumental in the mayoral elections of Coleman A. Young and Kwame M. Kilpatrick.
The Shrine also has a dynamic bookstore that is essential for any visitor to the historic site. The store features new and rare books on Black history and culture.
Linwood Street was the site and home of much of the pan-African and Black nationalist movement. One important site is this historic masjid. This location was initially established as Temple #1 of the Black Muslim movement, The Nation of Islam.
The Nation of Islam moved into this space in 1959 and was designated a historic site in 2013.
The location was renamed in the late 70s after the death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The name, Masjid Wali Muhammad was chosen in honor of the brother of Elijah Muhammad and designated a “masajid” the Arabic word for the place of worship for Muslims.
The church was the site of one of the first Boy Scout troops for Black Detroiters. It was also a community center for the neighborhood. Youth outreach programs, like a boxing program led by the legendary Emmanuel Stewart, was where world champion boxer, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns got his start.
The church was also the home of a number of gospel acts including Reverend James Cleveland and The Supremes. The church, which has 5000-seats, has also been the location of a number of historical Black speeches including two appearances by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
9. Submerge Record Distribution
3000 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit, MI 48202
The world headquarters of Underground Resistance is also home to the Detroit Techno Museum.
Original records from the height of the era, including gold and platinum plaques, are on display inside the museum. It should be noted that it is only available by appointment.
The museum has been called a “mecca for true techno fans” and the music, which reflected the grime of Detroit in the 1980s. John Collins, a DJ and producer told Detroit Metro Times that techno music, which is renowned around the world, was created to give listeners “hope for the future, that things will get better.”
Founded in 1989, the Plowshares Theatre Company has been offering a true off-Broadway experience as Michigan’s only professional African American theatre company.
The company has dedicated itself to “breaking new ground” by nurturing emerging, talented writers and actors. Named after a blade that cuts the top layer of soil in a farm, the name Plowshares refers back to the work that enslaved people did on plantations.
Producer Gary Anderson wrote that Plowshares is important because when African Americans can see themselves in artistic endeavors, like plays, it is a validation of life.
11. Dr. Ossian Sweet House
2905 Garland St., Detroit, MI 48214
This historic site does appear on a number of must-see lists for visitors to Detroit, but it remains worth mentioning again.
In September of 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys moved into their home on Garland St., and within hours a neighborhood group gathered to run the couple out of the home. A mob of at least 400 people gathered the next night throwing stones at the house.
Someone inside the house fired shots from a second-floor window hitting a rioter who had come onto the porch and wounded another in the crowd. All of the Black people in the house were charged with murder.
Dr. Sweet was acquitted of charges after being represented by the illustrious Charles Darrow. Charges against the rest of the group were dropped. However, Mrs. Sweet contracted tuberculosis in jail and died, along with the couple’s two-year-old daughter. And years later, Sweet took his own life.
The home represents the challenges that African Americans in Detroit had in moving into primarily white neighborhoods. The city is now majority Black.
12. Whipping Post
The Southeast corner of Woodward and Jefferson Avenues
This site was the location of Detroit’s first and only whipping post. The post was used to flog thieves and vagabonds, in protection of the city’s moral codes.
The whipping post was also a location where a man could be sold for a number of days work for petty crimes although slavery was illegal in the state of Michigan.
The legacy of the whipping post is still little-known. However, it is reasonable to assume that Black Detroiters, prior to 1830 when the post was removed, were punished at the post. It is mapped on the Mapping Slavery in Detroit map created by the University of Michigan.
13. Second Baptist Church
441 Monroe St., Detroit, MI 48226
Second Baptist Church is the oldest Black-established church in the Midwest. Founded in 1836, Second Baptist Church was a station on the Underground Railroad. The church was a final stop for some 5,000 enslaved people giving them food and clothing before sending them on to Canada.
Abolitionists Frederick Douglass spoke at the church in 1859 in a continued effort toward the end of enslavement. The church says that it can claim to have had a hand in the creation of over 30 more Black-founded churches.
14. Elizabeth Denison Forth’s House
328 Macomb, Detroit, MI 48226
Born a slave near Detroit in 1786, Elizabeth (Lisette) Denison Forth won her freedom after she and her brother moved to Canada to establish residency, which guaranteed that they would not be returned to their previous slave owner.
Lisette became a domestic servant, but she invested all of her pay into purchasing land. She became the first Black property owner in Pontiac, Michigan. She invested in the stock market and real estate and ultimately her own home became a Michigan Historic Site.
The front doors of St. James Episcopal Church is dedicated to Lisette who was a devout Episcopalian. She dedicated her life savings of $1,500 in 1866 to the building of the church.
In 2017, she was added to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame for her dedication to freedom and for equality among the rich and poor.