The Underground Railroad, pathway to freedom for enslaved African-Americans in the early 1800’s, figured prominently in Detroit’s history. Black people in southern states seeking to escape bondage made their way north, often with Detroit as their goal with its proximity to Canada and the promise of a free life. The Underground Railroad was not literally a train but rather a network of financial, spiritual, and material aid to assist African-American slaves in making their way from their shackled lives in the southern states to freedom, either in the northern states or in Canada. The risks for all involved were great. Runaway slaves could be recaptured only to be returned to their former masters where they usually faced severe punishment and a hopeless future. Black and White people alike who assisted these fugitives also faced severe punishment in the form of fines and imprisonment as assisting runaway slaves was against the law. It is estimated that 200 Underground Railroad stops existed throughout Michigan between the 1820’s and 1865 (the end of the American Civil War which conclusively brought an end to slavery).
The Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad commemorates Detroit’s role in this heroic effort. Located on the Detroit River in the Philip A. Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit, the memorial shows six fugitive slaves ready to board a boat to cross the Detroit River to Canada. Their local helper, George DeBaptist, points the way. The companion monument, Tower of Freedom, is located across the River in Windsor and features a former slave raising his arms to celebrate his emancipation while a Quaker woman offers assistance to a woman and two children.
Gateway to Freedom International Memorial
There are various opportunities to learn more about this momentous effort to aid those who were so desperately seeking their freedom. The Detroit Historical Museum hosts a special exhibit, “Doorway to Freedom: Detroit and the Underground Railroad”. For more information about this exhibit, check the website of the Detroit Historical Society at detroithistorical.org. The Underground Railroad Living Museum located within the First Congregational Church of Detroit offers a “Flight to Freedom” tour, a storytelling re-enactment of the original Underground Railroad Passage that operated between 1840 and 1863. You can learn more about that tour at friendsoffirst.com. During this month of February, we honor both those who braved the dangers to make their way to freedom as well as those who sheltered and guided them along the way.