American History · Detroit/Michigan · history

Code Word: “Midnight”

“Midnight” was the code word for one of the final stops of the Underground Railroad. By the time the former slaves arrived at “Midnight” they must have been filled with a sense of relief after surviving miles and miles of dangerous travel. Dawn was right around the corner. At this time, the country was teeming slave catchers. After the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, a new popular profession was created. This law gave the slaveholders the ability to seek out and have their runaways returned. The law of 1850 expanded this and allowed the capture of fugitives slaves anywhere in United States held territory. It did not matter if the fugitive was north of the Ohio River border (1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River), they could still be caught and returned. If they made it to Midnight (though not danger free) they were just a few miles and a ferry ride from freedom. Have you guessed where this was?

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Gateway to Freedom Monument, Detroit, Michigan

Detroit, Michigan was the most important and most popular crossings from the United States to freedom in Canada. Thousands traveled across the Detroit River a new life in Ontario. This included not only former slaves, but also free people of color. The Colored Vigilante Committee of Detroit assisted over 5,000 runaways with protection and transportation across the Detroit River between 1850-1865. Trade was not very regulated during this period either, which made it easier to slip across the river through the night. Despite being the final stop, there were many difficulties and hardships. Slave catchers (and even the slaveholders) would travel to the bitter end to retrieve what they deemed was their property. In this post I wanted to discuss a few aspects of the Underground Railroad system in Detroit. First, the community of free African Americans and abolitionists who came together to form networks to help, the importance of churches (such as the Second Baptist Church) and their communities, the Colored Vigilante Committee, and important figures.

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Tower of Freedom Monument, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Early Detroit Underground Railroad

It is known that by 1813, the people of Detroit were involved in the harboring and protecting of fugitives slaves. The War of 1812 actually had a large role in promoting the idea Canada as the place to go to start a free life. By 1793, Upper Canada had made laws to prohibit further slave importation and the expense of keeping slaves was not worth the gain. Canada’s economy did not depend on slave labor like the United States. During the War of 1812, many African American men fought in uniform for the British forces. The American soldiers found this so unusual, that they would begin to talk about their experiences to their families back home, which then spread to their slaves. African American’s who served American officers also began to find ways to slip away while they were brought to Upper Canada while their masters were at war. This was the first time that Canada was really brought to the Nations attention as a place of freedom.

A huge increase in the migration to Canada greatly affected the population of Detroit. By the 1830s, there was a large enough African American population to begin to organize and  create churches, political groups and resistance groups. The American government began to notice as well, as President John Quincy Adams and his Secretary of State, Henry Clay, began to petition Canada to return their runaway slaves. Though the British government would not comply to these entreaties and responded that they would never “depart from the principle recognized by the British courts that every man is free who reaches British ground.” In 1833, Great Britain abolished slavery across their entire empire.

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Michigan also began to attempt to stop the great migration by requiring that one had to present a “certificate of freedom” and pay a $500 fee. Also attracted by the increase were slave catchers who were began to invade Michigan in rapid numbers searching for their bounty. Yet, this did not stop the brave men and women who traveled or volunteered on the Underground Railroad.

One of the first examples of the Detroit African American community coming together was in 1833 when the Blackburn Riots took place. It was likely the first race riot to have happened in the city.

Thorton and Lucie Blackburn worked as slaves in Louisville, Kentucky and were married. In June of 1831, Lucie was sold and was to be separated from her husband. Together, they forged freedom papers and escaped on a steamboat. Eventually, they found their way to Detroit and to what they believed to be the freedom they were searching for. The Blackburns joined the growing community of African American families and the beginning of the community churches. They were well liked and respected.

Yet, in 1833, the Blackburn’s were spotted by a slave catcher who had worked for their previous owners and it was ruled that the owner still had the right to take the couple back as his property. The African American community of Detroit crowed the balcony of the courthouse waiting to hear the verdict, and, when that verdict came, they were furious. They threatened to burn down Detroit if the Blackburn’s were not freed. Mobs began to gather, including those from across the river in Canada and in the surrounding rural areas of Michigan. They refused to see their friends rightful freedom be taken away. During the night of the trial, the principal families of the African American community met and came up with a plan to break the couple out of jail and ferry them across the Detroit River.


The next morning two wives from these families (Mrs. Lightfoot and Mrs. French) visited Lucie Blackburn stating that they wanted to sit with Mrs. Blackburn in prayer. The objective of this visit was to complete a quick switch and free Mrs. Blackburn. Lucie Blackburn traded clothing with Mrs. French (who then stayed behind in the cell) while the other two women left weeping into their veils to “hide their tears” (or, rather, their faces).

Thorton Blackburn’s escape was not as easy. He was brought out of the jail, closely guarded, as he was placed upon the cart that would bring him to the steamboat docks (to return to the south). But, the mob of protesters began to follow and prevented the cart from moving further. Blackburn was tossed a pistol which he fired in the air causing mass chaos. Through the chaos of the riot, Thorton Blackburn was taken with great speed to the river front and escaped to meet his wife on the other side. This example shows the first time that the African American community of Detroit really came together to protect each other and freedom, yet there were consequences. Many who were thought to have participated in the riots were arrested, federal troops patrolled the streets and even African American homes and buildings were burnt to the ground. This caused a reduction in the African American community as many began to also cross the river to Canada.

The Importance of Churches 

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Second Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan

The church was extremely important to the lives of former slaves who had made a home in the Detroit region. Communities were formed around the churches which provided support to the minority and provided comfort to those who were victims of harassment and discrimination. The Second Baptist Church of Detroit actually formed as a result of this. The First Baptist Church used discriminatory practices (including restrictive seating and banning them from participation in church offices/fellowships) and thirteen former slaves took the leap of faith and broke away. This number included many who were the leaders during the Blackburn riots. They formed the Second Baptist Church in 1836, which is still active to this day. This church, along with others across the river, became one of the top supporters of abolition and became very involved with the politics of this issue and the Underground Railroad.

The church served as a station for fugitive slaves before they could cross the river to Canada. They hosted thousands of fugitives from 1836 through the end of the Civil War. The church’s leaders helped to form the Amherstberg Baptist Association (Ontario) and the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association. The Second Baptist Church teamed up with other black Baptist churches across the river to form unity and to protect those searching for freedom. They also worked to provide people of color with a religious haven, which could not be obtained through the white churches.

Other prominent African American churches in Detroit included St Matthews Protestant Episcopal Mission and the Bethel AME Church (which included a publicly funded school for African American children).

St John’s Church was actually a German Congregation, but assisted in the efforts. In the case of St John’s, tradition has it that funerals would be staged where fugitive slaves would be transported in a casket and the procession would move toward the Detroit River. From there, they would access the escape boat and make it across the river. This would fool any slave catchers who were patrolling the streets.

Detroit Colored Vigilant Committee

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Detroit River
Since the Blackburn riot, the African American community in Detroit had grown and more and more fugitives began to pass through. It is estimated over 5,000+ traveled through Detroit between 1842 and 1862. There needed to be an organized system for mobilizing those of the African American community in Detroit. The Detroit Colored Vigilant Committee was formed in 1842 and were key to the protection and assisting fugitives across the Detroit River. They would patrol the streets and spread the word among the community if  they had news of slave catchers in the city, they would mobilize a militia to distract the slave catchers and help the fugitives escape or hide. The Committee would also meet with incoming fugitives, hide them and then take them across the river. They were in charge of keeping the boats they used hidden during the day time.
The Committee was also active in protests, as they not only assisted physically with the rescues, but were also trying to assist in spreading the word about abolition and African American rights. This helped to bring abolition to the nation’s attention and lobbyed the federal government. The committee was organized by some of the church leaders that founded the African American churches above, such as William Lambert and George DeBaptista. It is said that about 60-70 local Detroit African Americans were involved in the Committee and these were from all different class levels.


Big Names

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William Lambert was one of the most prominent abolitionist in Detroit and was very involved in many of the organizations above. He came to Detroit in 1838 and set up shop as a tailor. Yet, by night, he became one of the most important conductors of the Underground Railroad. He used his station to guide thousands of fugitives searching for a new home. He was one of the leaders of the Second Baptist Church and then later went on to establish St Matthews Protestant Episcopal Church where he provided education services. He spoke in front of the Michigan State Legislature and fought for black rights and hosted the meeting with John Brown and Frederick Douglas regarding the Harper’s Ferry plan.

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George DeBaptiste was originally hired as the valet for President William Henry Harrison, but, as the president only lived 32 days into office, DeBaptiste’s career was cut short. DeBaptiste used this opportunity to become involved with assisting fugitives on the Underground Railroad in Indiana. Eventually, he took his talents to Detroit in 1846. He was a businessman and ran a barber shop and bakery. He even bought a steamship, which was used not only for business, but to assist in the secret escape of many former slaves. He was one who helped to organize and form the Colored Vigilante Committee and other secret societies all in the effort to get as many fugitives across the river as safely as possible. DeBaptiste was also present at the meeting with John Brown. He continued to help fellow African Americans and his community for the rest of his life.

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Laura Smith Haviland grew up as a Quaker in Michigan and soon made a name for herself as a abolitionist, suffragette and an important part of the Underground Railroad. Haviland and her husband used their home as a station for the Underground Railroad and established the first bi-racial school in Michigan (Raisin Institute). Haviland and 32 other women founded the Anti-Slavery Society of Lenawee. They promoted all writings published by abolitionists, hosted lectures and assisted fugitive slaves. Despite losing her husband, her youngest child, and her parents from a sudden spread of disease, she continued to work for the abolition movement. Even though she was now a poor widow with a farm and seven children to take care of, she still did not let this stop her from continuing to fight for her beliefs.

Haviland even traveled to the South and into slave territory in order to assist in freeing any slaves she could. Unfortunately, this was not to succeed, but it shows her devotion and bravery for the cause. She had ties with her friend Sojourner Truth and was affiliated with William Lambert and George DeBaptiste. She boosted her contacts all along the Detroit River in order to give warning regarding slave catchers and know where it was safe for the fugitives she assisted. She also helped to form the Refugee Home Society in Windsor, Ontario. Henry and Mary Bibb (the writers of the newspaper Voice of the Fugitive) were the main administration of the Society. This society took donations from the United States and Canada to create schools, a church community, and provide fugitive families with the supplies and land they needed to get their start in their new home.

Detroit was the last stop before freedom, yet sometimes gets looked over in the bigger picture of the history of the Underground Railroad. Though by the time they reached Detroit, they were so close to freedom, but the danger was still present. Without the strong African American and abolitionist communities present in Detroit, many of these thousands of fugitives who passed across the Detroit River would not have made it. It is important to remember the hard work and devotion that made the success of the Underground Railroad possible and assisted in the fight for the end of slavery in the United States. This was such an interesting story and it was great to dive into the details of local history. Many of these churches and sites can still be seen today and the Detroit Historical Museum has a wonderful exhibit that goes further into the topics of the Underground Railroad and into the 1960s.


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A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland Edited by Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker.

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