The Underground Railroad in Detroit
Carlos Simon's Troubled Water is a trombone concerto commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It derives inspiration from the history of the Underground Railroad in the United States. The piece is inspired by the many stories, accounts, and experiences told by many enslaved people and abolitionists.
Michigan was one of the last states for enslaved persons to reach before getting to freedom in Canada. The Underground Railroad was a network of clandestine routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early- to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and Canada. Detroit has an incredible amount of sites with historical significance to the Underground Railroad.
City of Detroit Historian Jamon Jordan (pictured above with composer Nkeiru Okoye) describes a collection of nine sites, listed below. We encourage you to visit the sites in conjunction with listening to Simon's piece to learn more about Detroit's important role in this history. A Google Map of all site locations is available here.
1) Former Detroit Jail Site - The Blackburn Uprising of 1833
Corner of Gratiot Avenue and Farmer Street
Husband and wife, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn escaped from slavery in Louisville, KY in 1831. They came to Detroit. In 1833, slave catchers came to Detroit and with assistance from the sheriff, apprehended the Blackburns and detained them in the jail until they could be transported via boat to Ohio, and then by wagon to Louisville. Two women came to visit Lucie Blackburn and one of them switched clothes with her and stayed in the jail cell while Lucie was taken to Canada. The next day, a crowd of 400 people gathered outside of the jail and demanded the release of Thornton Blackburn. In the melee that followed, the sheriff was seriously wounded and Thornton was rescued and taken to Canada. This is now the site of the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library.
2) Second Baptist Church
Monroe and Beaubien Streets
Second Baptist Church, founded in 1836, is the oldest Black-led church in Michigan, and was a station on the Underground Railroad, the first school for Black students in Detroit, and a major venue for civil rights. Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all spoke at Second Baptist Church. They have been at this corner since 1857.
3) William and Julia Lambert Homesite
497 Larned Street (near Saint Aubin)
This was the home of Underground Railroad agents William & Julia Lambert (both African Americans). This couple owned successful businesses, used their home as a station on the Underground Railroad, and were conductors and stockholders (funders) on the Underground Railroad. William Lambert co-founded the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society, the Detroit Vigilant Committee, the African American Mysteries: Order of the Men of Oppression, and he and his wife Julia co-founded St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, the 3rd Black church in Detroit, which was a school and a station on the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass stayed in this home on one of his visits to Detroit. The historical marker that was placed here was stolen in 2016.
4) George DeBaptiste Homesite
Southwest corner of Larned Street and Beaubien Boulevard
This was the home of Underground Railroad agent George DeBaptiste (African American). DeBaptiste was a member of Second Baptist Church, and used his home as a station on the Underground Railroad. He was a successful businessman, and served as a conductor and stockholder of the Underground Railroad. He was a co-founder of the Detroit Vigilant Committee and the African American Mysteries: Order of the Men of Oppression, and owned his own steamboat—The T. Whitney—that assisted many freedom seekers to make their way to Canada. Today, the building at this corner is a Blue Cross/Blue Shield office.
5) William Webb Homesite
Northeast corner of Saint Antoine and Congress Streets
William Webb (African American) was a grocer, and his home was a station on the Underground Railroad. He was a prominent member of the Detroit Vigilant Committee and the African American Mysteries: Order of the Men of Oppression. His home was the meeting place of Frederick Douglass and John Brown in March, 1859. There is a historical marker here.
6) The Gateway to Freedom: International Underground Railroad Monument
Detroit Riverfront, at the foot of Hart Plaza
This monument was sculpted by Ed Dwight (African American), a former astronaut. It was unveiled in 2001, to honor Detroit's role on the Underground Railroad. The sister monument—Tower of Freedom—is on the other side in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The names and sites of Underground Railroad leaders and stations are etched on the monument.
7) Seymour Finney Barn
Northeast corner of State and Griswold Streets
This barn was owned by Seymour Finney (white American), a tailor, saloon owner, and innkeeper. He was a founding leader of the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society, and his barn served as a station on the Underground Railroad. There is a plaque on the building, owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit.
Across the Street in Capitol Park, is a historical marker that tells the story of Finney. It is near the original site of the First Michigan Capitol Building. Detroit was the capital of Michigan from 1805-1847. When the capital changed to Lansing in 1847, the old building became a school. William George Dolarson (African American) was the school janitor, but was also Finney's partner as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was a member of Second Baptist Church.
8) Old St. John's Evangelical Church
Russell Street just south of Gratiot Avenue
Presently, St. John's-St. Luke's Evangelical United Church of Christ. This congregation is the first German Protestant church in Detroit. Although this building was built in 1874, its earlier building was a station on the Underground Railroad. One of the ways the church assisted freedom seekers to Canada, was to place them in a coffin and lead a funeral procession to the river. This would arouse no suspicion from the authorities. The freedom seekers would then be taken out of the casket at the riverbank and placed on a boat to Canada. One of the coffins is on display inside of the church.
9) First Congregational Church
Woodward Avenue and Forest Street
First Congregational Church was originally near the riverfront, and it was there that the church served as a station on the Underground Railroad. The present-day church houses the Underground Railroad Living Museum which leads groups on a tour in which the Underground Railroad is re-created with actors playing the parts of conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad.
Further Learning: Reading Resources
- Hudson, J. Blaine. Encyclopedia of the Underground Railroad. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.
This encyclopedia focuses on the people, ideas, events, and places associated with the Underground Railroad.
- Miles, Tiya. The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.
A book chronicling the fascinating and disturbing history of slavery in early Detroit. Miles delves in detail into why and how many slaves were owned by the city’s elite, relationships between the races, and individual stories about freed and enslaved people.
- Mull, Carol E. The Underground Railroad in Michigan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010.
Provides a fresh examination of Michigan’s critical role in the movement to end slavery.
- Smardz Frost, Karolyn and Tucker, Veda Smith. A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit Borderland. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016.
An edited collection that seeks to provide a re-interpretation of the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River region.
- Tobin, Jacqueline L. From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
Offers a new perspective on the Underground Railroad through the experiences of fugitive ex-slaves from the United States to free black settlements in Canada.
- Tobin, Jacqueline L. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
Explains how enslaved men and women encoded messages within quilt patterns that helped fugitives navigate their escape along the Underground Railroad.
The DSO thanks City of Detroit Historian Jamon Jordan for the development of the content of this guide, the Detroit Public Library for compiling a list of resources for further learning, and Varnum for their sponsorship of community events surrounding the premiere of Carlos Simon's Troubled Water.
All images Detroit Public Library Burton Historical Collection
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