Hart Plaza in Downtown Detroit features a bronze sculpture of seven people looking out over the water, “Gateway to Freedom.” There’s a companion sculpture, “Tower of Freedom,” across the river in Windsor, Ontario. Together they make up the International Memorial to the Underground Railroad, located here because Detroit was a key stop on the journey to freedom for many former slaves.
Beginning in the 1700s and reaching its peak in the 1850s, the Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad but a secret multiracial network of people who were willing to help others escape from slavery, usually in violation of the law and at great risk to themselves. The network used many routes to guide former escapees to places where they could not be returned to slavery, including several routes to Canada through Michigan.
Slavery was banned in Michigan when it became a US territory in 1793, although about 30 people who were already slaves here were not released. In 1833, Upper Canada (now Southern Ontario) became the first part of the British Empire to ban slavery, although they also made exceptions for people already enslaved.
The US Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 required free states to return escaped slaves. But as slavery became less popular, Northern officials did not always comply. That meant escapees were fairly safe in free states, and many settled in Detroit. In 1850, the US passed a new Fugitive Slave Act under which officials could be punished for failing to return escaped slaves, and anyone could be punished for helping them. If any white person claimed that a black person was an escaped slave, police were required to arrest them, even with no evidence. That meant former slaves were not safe until they reached Canada, which they referred to as the “Promised Land.”
The Underground Railroad included “conductors” who guided escapees to “stations” or safehouses. “Agents” or “shepherd” posed as slaves to enter plantations and direct enslaved people north. Their routes were often indirect, and individual conductors often did not know the entire route, to help keep it secret. It’s estimated that at least 30,000 people, and possibly as many as 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
In the Gateway to Freedom sculpture, the man pointing in the sculpture is George deBaptiste, a Detroit resident who helped escapees. Several Detroit churches and other organizations were part of the Underground Railroad, and some of those still exist today, including Bethel African-Methodist Episcopal Church and Second Baptist Church.
After the Civil War, African Americans were able to settle in Detroit in larger numbers, with the largest influx coming between 1910 and 1930 during the growth of the auto industry. Today, African Americans make up about 79% of Detroit’s population. “Gateway to Freedom” was completed in 2001 by Edward Dwight, Jr., a sculptor who was previously an Air Force pilot and the first African American to train with NASA.
Cover image: lora_313, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.