New research exposes Detroit’s pre-Underground Railroad history

The beleaguered city’s slavery past suggests much about its potential future


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Detroit historically has been known as a key stop in the Underground Railroad, visited by Blacks escaping from slavery in the South. However, a University of Michigan professor’s current research reveals that by no means were all of the slaves in Detroit passing through to freedom, even when slavery there was illegal.

“Slaves in Detroit were not as interesting [to historians] as slaves in the South,” said University of Michigan Professor Tiya Miles at the 19th annual David Noble Lecture April 9 at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum.

Tiya Miles
Tiya Miles

The city originally was founded in 1701 as a fort first owned by the French; then it was acquired by the English until the time that it became a part of the U.S. Northwest Territories.It [was] intended to be a settlement, not just a military trading post,” explained Miles, who began researching Detroit’s history three years ago. “I wanted to roll back the picture and think about what was going on in Michigan before it became [a state]. There is a wide view that Michigan was a part of freedom, and Detroit became a heroic transition point on the Underground Railroad. It supposedly was the last stop for slaves…to go to Canada.”

Instead, Miles learned that Detroit “was not a place associated with freedom but with slavery and anti-Black laws,” she continued.

Until Michigan became a U.S. state in 1835, slavery of both Blacks and Native Americans was “practiced” in the northern area of the city. The British, who took control of the area, continued slavery and ordered slaves to be imported from New York, “especially colored boys and Negro boys,” discovered Miles. She also found records that showed, “Slavery was not really abolished even after [the] Americans took control of Detroit.

Americans did benefit from slave labor in Detroit. There were a number of slaves doing a variety of work. Even though the number was small,” slaves often were used as collateral by Whites to obtain loans, she pointed out.

Three other little-known historical points Miles also discovered about Detroit include, first, that three separate court cases reached the Michigan Supreme Court wherein free Blacks sued to get their children released from slavery. Second, there was a state governor who “either authorized or organized a militia made up of former runaway slaves” to patrol and protect the city at one time.

And third, there was a Black couple, former slaves who lived free in Detroit in the 1830s, who were arrested and put in jail when their former owner came to get them. The city Blacks instead helped free them from jail, and the couple escaped to Canada, which later resulted in “increased surveillance of African Americans,” noted the professor.

“Detroit’s past is an important part in trying to create a viable vision for the future, not only for Detroit but also for the entire Midwest,” said Miles, who pointed out that unfortunately Detroit today has become the poster child for what’s wrong with urban cities in America.

“There is no question that [abandoned buildings and other factors] have been a problem in Detroit, [but] Detroit history…is one of making and remaking itself. The way I envision [its] future is by looking at the past.”

Miles, who studied and earned her doctorate at the University of Minnesota, is a believer in the beleaguered city. “I have to say there is hope” for the city. People have this attitude that Detroit is a dump, but it is not a dump. This city has got to come back in some form.”

After the speech, Miles told the MSR, “One thing my research is showing is that Detroit was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-national city.” The city always has survived past crises and has bounced back, she added.

“Detroit has seen bad times and this isn’t the first time Detroit looked like a ruin. The city was literally burned to the ground in 1805 and it came back and came back stronger.”


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