Freedom on the Horizon: Rediscovering the Underground Railroad, Pt. II
In honor of Black History Month, we are exploring the complexity, bravery, and utmost historical significance of the Underground Railroad - especially within the scope of the Detroit region's unique role within its operation. Part II follows the final phase of the great journey - and the railroad's lasting legacy on our outdoors.
"Wake up. It's time."
You wipe the sleep away from your eyes just in time to see a vaguely familiar face looking back at you through candlelight. A dark face that you only recognize since you met the man just hours prior, and his confident stare provides you with a sense of ease despite the total absence of familiarity surrounding you.
As the shapeless beings around you in the dusty, crowded, and freezing basement start to come alive, you manage to get your exhausted legs under you. The temptation to collapse back onto the floor nearly overtakes you, but a final push of adrenaline keeps you concentrated on the task at hand. Many months, countless miles, and one singular goal have all led to this pitch-black early morning.
"The boat is waiting. We need to hurry."
Once the signal from the nearby docks is received, the man guides you from the sanctuary of a church basement and through a rudimentary tunnel. A cool, chilling breeze - with a growing hint of fish and freshwater - beckons you towards the shrubbery-hidden mouth of the tunnel and a steamship laden with lumber and other goods. A white man stands of the helm of this ship, but - to your pleasant surprise - the black man leading you appears to be running the entire operation. This black man positions you and others securely within the ship's hull, bolts the hatch down, and gives one final instruction within earshot:
"To the Fort first, then Sandusky. Black wool is secured."
The steamship's engines spurt to life. Hours pass, and your stomach turns in and over itself. A combination of anxiety, anticipation, malnourishment, and the natural bob of open water. Your mind drifts back over the past several months - the oppressive heat of the deep south, the beatings, the escape, the close encounters, the freezing starlight nights, claustrophobic basements, barn latches, famished steps. All those moments led to this...one final journey.
The engines calm to a whisper. Strange voices are heard above you, steadily dropping from maritime calls to rushed, hushed utterances. The latch above you opens and a combination of excited white and black faces peer down into the hull of the T. Whitney.
"Welcome to Fort Malden. Welcome to Upper Canada. Rise up, brothers and sisters - you are free at last."
Welcome to Part II of our limited series on the Detroit region's pivotal role in the Underground Railroad! After field-testing a few ideas, we decided to launch this article at the climax of the railroad's most critical moment: the most historic "summit push" or "final mile" that humanity's greatest journeys have ever accounted for. The final hours separating fugitive from free, hunted from protected, life from near-certain death.
The meat of this article will surround both sides of this crucial final passage between "Midnight," the City of Detroit, and "Dawn," the Canadian shoreline. Picking up where we left off in Part I, we will first retrace and remember the routes, locations, and key conductors that safely guided fugitive "passengers" through the dangerous streets of heavily-patrolled Detroit. Next, we will follow the paths of the tens of thousands of freed slaves that formed new lives on the free shores of Upper Canada. Our series will conclude with a dive into the living legacy of the Underground Railroad within our region, especially focusing on the opportunities available to us today for further honoring and expanding its impact on Detroit's outdoors.
Underground Railroad Self-Guided Tour Map, provided by the Detroit Greenways Coalition
SURVIVING THE MIDNIGHT MASQUERADE
Fugitive slaves arrived within the City of Detroit predominantly following the Rouge River, just north of today's City of River Rouge. As discussed in Part I, the requisite secrecy for safely operating the Underground Railroad means that modern historians must settle for incomplete or unverifiable information regarding its exact operation, although historical evidence suggests that most Detroit-based conductors made contact with fugitive passengers near the location of today's Zug Island. Once contact was safely established, all roads led north to the city's center.
A quick glance at the map shared above demonstrates that the Detroit of the 19th century was utilized by railroad conductors almost in its entirety for safely housing and transporting passengers. The route depicted above provides a comprehensive guide for visiting any and all of Detroit's railroad-related sites, including the gravestones of several prominent abolitionists and fugitives that established Detroit as the "Great Refuge of the North." For this article, we will condense this list to Detroit railroad's key historical stations - and their operators - that you can still visit and honor today.
Second Baptist Church. When it comes to Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad, Second Baptist Church is largely considered the single most historically-significant location within the city. The safe house in the church’s basement, known as the “Croghan Street Station,” represents one of the only remaining documented Detroit stations on the Underground Railroad. Thirteen freed slaves founded the church in 1836, thereby establishing Michigan’s first black congregation. Although first located on Fort Street, the congregation moved in 1857 to its current location in Greektown. The church evolved into a critical station on the Underground Railroad, housing an estimated 5,000 freedom seekers at both of its locations over a 30 year period. Abolitionist leaders including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and John Brown worked with Second Baptist in its railroad-related operations.
First Congregational Church. First established in 1844, the First Congregational Church of Detroit supported antislavery activism in numerous ways. The church's second location's proximity to the Detroit River made its basement an ideal location for concealing fugitives while they awaited safe passage to Canada. Rev. Harvey Kitchel, who pastored the church from 1848 to 1864, staunchly advocated for the abolitionist cause during his tenure. Following Kitchel's example, church members like Horace Hallock sheltered freedom seekers in their homes and served within antislavery political organizations. First Congregational Church moved into its current building in 1891 and opened an Underground Railroad Living Museum in 2001.
Mariner's Church. The connection of Mariner's Church to the Underground Railroad was forgotten for nearly a century - until construction workers in 1955 discovered a tunnel that traversed Jefferson Avenue, under Hart Plaza, and opened via a clandestine gateway to the Detroit River. The tunnel was discovered when the city decided to move the church from its historic location on Woodward Avenue to its current location, and it is believed that a hidden door in the original church's sub-basement opened to the tunnel that led to the Detroit River and waiting boats. You may have picked up on this, but we utilized Mariner's Church within our opening dramatization of the final journey from Midnight to Dawn.