Black History: Special Delivery!!
Detroit, MI is known for being an important stop on the Underground Railroad. You may not know that people were also enslaved in Detroit and surrounding areas prior to Michigan obtaining statehood. Many roads, schools, and other institutions in the Detroit area are named after wealthy slave-owning families. If you live in or near Detroit, you will recognize these names, Macomb, Campau, Beaubien, McDougall, Brush, Cass, Hamtramck, Dequindre, Groesbeck Livernois, Rivard, and many others. From its founding in 1750, slavery existed during Detroit’s existence as a French, British, and then American settlement. The Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library has an original ledger book of William Macomb. The ledger lists his property and includes over 20 enslaved individuals. The first mayor of Detroit, John R. Williams, who has two streets in Detroit that bear his name, also owned slaves along with priests of the Catholic Church in Detroit. The men who financed the Detroit Free Press were also former slave owners. The Free Press used its platform to support slavery prior to the Civil War.
People of African and Native/Indigenous descent were both enslaved in Detroit. Enslavement of native peoples occurred first. Slavery played an integral role in the relationship between European settlers and Native tribes. The Native system of enslavement involved taking captives to settle conflicts or build alliances. This would occur by women and children of rival factions being exchanged or given to confirm an alliance or settle a dispute. When the French arrived, they also adopted this practice to establish trade alliances with Native peoples as well. Native women were victims of labor trafficking and sexual violence. The enslaved were used as pawns to help bolster trading alliances between European settlers and Native tribes. Slavery continued to exist in the Northwest Territory (which included Michigan) even though it was abolished in 1787. Slave owners used loopholes or flat-out ignored the law to maintain their ownership of the enslaved.
Slavery in Detroit was used to provide a labor force to support the fur trade when the city was still under French control. The enslaved were used as farmers, mariners, domestics, fur traders, and more. In addition to owning slaves, some wealthy white landowners also stole land from native people as well. Enslaved men, women, and children often slept on the kitchen floors of their owner’s homes. They were subject to sexual and physical violence at their owners’ whims. Slavery looked different in Detroit than it did in the south. The population of Detroit was small and did not require the number of laborers that southern industries needed. By comparison, enslaved individuals made up less than 10% of Detroit’s population, while enslaved individuals made up 33% of the population in the south prior to the Civil War.
If you want to learn more, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle Of Slavery and Freedom In The City Of Straits” by Tiya Miles is a great book! You can also check out the video, “Digging Detroit: Slavery In Detroit”