The underground road to precious freedom for black slaves

This is the sixth of my posts based on a recent tour of the eastern half of the USA. I visited a number of sites relevant to African American history. To mark Black History Month, I am relating some of the things I saw, in the order I saw them.

I had low expectations for Detroit. You hear stories about bankruptcy and violence. In fact, I found Detroit to be a wonderful city. It is beautifully spaced out. Rather than having all its prominent buildings in the centre of the city, they are spread out across the urban area. The heritage of the wealth of the automative industry has bestowed some wonderful buildings to Detroit.

One particularly enjoyable jaunt was through the centre of the city around the Hart Plaza. Past the beautiful “Spirit of Detroit” monument, I strolled along the river where you can see Windsor, Ontario across on the other side – and the most “in your face” Canadian flag you could imagine, flying at a mast on the riverbank.

As I walked along the embankment I came across this (above) wonderful memorial. This is the Detroit half of the Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad by Ed Dwight. The companion monument by the same sculptor across the river in Windsor is located on Pitt Street East near the Windsor Casino.

So what was the “Underground Railroad”? Wikipedia tells us:

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early-to-mid 19th century, and used by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives. Various other routes led to Mexico or overseas. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until shortly after the American Revolution. However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 1700s, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860.One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the “Railroad”.

With specific reference to the Detroit memorial, theclio.com says:

Historians estimate that as many as 45,000 runaway slaves passed through Detroit on their way to freedom in Canada. Although Michigan was a free state, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it possible for slave catchers (or any white person) to claim that an African American was a runaway slave pending the decision of a special court that required only the testimony of one white person. The Fugitive Slave Law also barred the accused from defending themselves, a situation that caused many free African Americans to leave the nation of their birth and seek refuge in Canada. The anti-slavery movement in Detroit comprised of African Americans, foreign and native-born whites, and Native Americans who defied the law and worked together to provide safety for thousands of women, men, and children.

Sculpted by Ed Dwight and dedicated on October 20, 2001, the Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad pays tribute to the city’s contribution and the thousands of railroad conductors who made freedom possible. Several routes diverged on Detroit, code name “Midnight,” and for many, the city was the final destination for freedom seekers until the mid-1830s. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, many of the runaways then moved to Canada. Thus, across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada, the second part of the memorial faces the Gateway to Freedom Memorial in Detroit. From characters such as Peter Denison, who returned to Detroit to lead a black militia, to Thornton and Ruth Blackburn, this memorial pays tributes to Americans who stood for freedom in an era of slavery.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is a councillor and one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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