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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.

Tommy’s Detroit Bar and Grill. Built in 1840, and just steps away from the Detroit River, Tommy’s also has a tunnel beneath the bar that is believed to have been used during both the Prohibition era to funnel alcohol and as an outlet for the Underground Railroad.

Site of Finney Barn. Located roughly half a mile from the Detroit River, Seymour Finney’s barn provided a common last stop for freedom seekers on their way to Canada. In the early 1850s, Finney built the barn to serve the guests at his hotel, "the Finney House." In an almost Tarantino-style scenario, runaway bounty hunters often stayed at the Finney House while fugitives simultaneously took cover in the barn’s hayloft until nightfall, when abolitionists coordinated secret trips across the Detroit River.

A FINAL JOURNEY TO DAWN

There is one final character that we need to introduce into Midnight's story - the final "ferryman" that's largely credited with transporting most of Detroit's passengers from bondage to freedom. That man is George DeBaptiste, a black man born free in Virginia in 1815 that brought his abolitionist talents to Detroit in 1846, the shadow-owner of the steamship T. Whitney, and the final conductor described in this article's opening passage. Publicly, DeBaptiste worked in a variety of positions including caterer and clerk. In private and under moonlight, however, the ardent abolitionist secretly transported men, women, and children out of the United States aboard the T. Whitney and to freedom, putting his own safety at risk for the sake of others.


And what was the T. Whitney's principal port-of-call? No, not Windsor - which I had erroneously believed until conducting research for this series. The answer is actually the small yet gargantuanly-historic town of Amherstburg, Ontario - Upper Canada's equivalent of "Ellis Island" for fugitive slaves during the 19th century.

Historic Fort Malden in Amherstberg, Ontario

Thanks be to Heaven that I have got here at last: on yonderside of Detroit River, I was recognized as property; but on this side I am on free soil. Hail, Brittania! Shame, America!


This is an actual quote from a freedom-seeker's documented account of their passage on the Underground Railroad, as published in Ann Arbor's Signal newspaper in 1846. Better than any words that I could attempt to type here, this quote succinctly captures the jubilance, relief, pain, and bitterness that refugees from the American south felt upon touching tierra firma in Canada.

Cargo ships like the T. Whitney would typically south down the Detroit River towards Fort Malden, the principal port of entry into Upper Canada. Upon arrival at the docks near Fort Malden, international commerce involving mostly lumber would coincide with an importation of "black wool" - the fugitives that would, for the first time in their entire lives, breathe in fresh air as free men. Starting in 1850, an estimated 30 passengers per day obtained freedom via this method of morally illicit human trafficking.


Despite their arrival in Canada, the free men, women, and children still found themselves largely at the mercy of their new community. These newly-minted African-Canadians often arrived without money, food, or clothing suited to the rigors of a Canadian winter. Fortunately, fugitive-established churches like the Amherstburg First Baptist Church (founded in 1836) and the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church (founded in 1848) were ready and willing to shelter the arrivals in desperate need of community support.


Both of these community organizations - and the multigenerational congregations that support them - are still vibrant and active today.

THE RAILROAD'S LIVING LEGACY

So... what's the point in retracing the journey of the Underground Railroad through the Detroit region? Why spend the time and effort in researching, visiting, and hiking these routes? Yes, history is interesting, but why take an active audience through this academic exercise?


The simple answer is that this exercise matters because we as a society disregard what we do not value - and our region's historical significance is often indefensibly undervalued. Beyond a general interest in writing about an outdoor recreation theme that has relevancy to black historical events, our desire to reach and write about the Underground Railroad stemmed from childlike curiosity in its specifics. Which routes did fugitive slaves travel on? Where did they shelter? Who guided them? Who hunted them? What organizations still honor and preserve their legacy?


Ladies and gentlemen, our conclusion is that the Detroit region has an immense opportunity to honor the living legacy of the Underground Railroad in two profound ways:


1. Rediscover, Rebuild, and Maintain the Underground Railroad's Routes.

Not to sound like a broken record, but we spun our wheels fairly excessively trying to track down common routes of the Underground Railroad. Yes, historical records to date appear unpromising for pinning down the exact routes traveled. However, other regions have uncovered - and maintained - other well-known or alleged routes of the Underground Railroad for historical preservation and modern recreation.


The Detroit region should embark on similar trail building and preservation initiatives for our Underground Railroad routes. As we noted in Part I of this series, there are at least three virtually-certain routes of the Underground Railroad that are already being incorporated by various organizations into larger trail networks. Why not expand the operations of the State of Michigan's Freedom Trail Commission towards formally reestablishing the historical routes used within the railroad? Especially with the future connection of the Gordie Howe International Bridge to Canada's established trail systems and Michigan's campaign to be universally recognized as the "Trails State," this initiative should be a no-brainer action towards protecting the legacy of the Underground Railroad.


2. Strengthen our Support of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion ("DEI") Initiatives

Despite the thousands upon thousands of miles that black Americans traversed along the Underground Railroad, de facto and de jure policies, laws, and norms implemented throughout the 19th, 20th, and even early 21st centuries have largely kept our outdoor spaces fragmented and inhospitable along racial lines.


Across the country - and specifically within the Detroit region - private companies, community organizations, and governmental institutions alike have adopted DEI initiatives to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive outdoor recreation opportunities for recreationists of every race, religion, and walk of life. These initiatives include actions like ensuring that cost is not a barrier to accessing parks and outdoor recreation, implementing more culturally-competent programming, and working to better include people of marginalized identities in planning, programming, and staffing. Organizations like Detroit Outdoors, which is centered on fostering more meaningful connections between Detroit's urban youth and the outdoors, provides opportunities for engagement with the outdoors through offering learning opportunities and activities such as overnight camping.

 

As Black History Month comes to a close today, we would like to sign off on this series by acknowledging and honoring the estimated 15 million men, women, and children of African descent that tragically died during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. We also want to recognize and further honor the hundreds of thousands of Black Americans that dared to stand against that grave injustice by reclaiming their God-given freedom via the Underground Railroad. We vow to continue to honor their legacy and sacrifice through promoting an outdoor ecosystem that benefits the livelihood every recreationist in an equitable, sustainable, and supportive manner.




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