Detroit played key role in slaves’ escape

Tens of thousands of people visit the Detroit River along the RiverWalk every year.

But probably not many know the river’s significance in 19th century U.S. and Canadian history.

More than one hundred and fifty years ago, thousands of escaped slaves found freedom through the Underground Railroad by crossing that same river into Canada.

“The history of resistance to slavery in the Detroit River region is not well known outside of this area,” said Veta Smith Tucker, who visited the McNichols campus last week.

Tucker and Karolyn Smardz Frost edited the book “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland.”

The book’s release was celebrated Feb. 18 at the university when Tucker and Frost came to UDM to discuss the release. They were joined on a panel by some of the 12 Underground Railroad scholars who contributed to “A Fluid Frontier.”

Among them was UDM history professor Roy Finkenbine, who facilitated the discussion.

“What do you hope this book accomplishes?” Finkenbine asked the panel.

Irene Moore Davis, a contributor to the book and a direct descendant of Underground Railroad survivors, responded.

She said, “I hope … history will come to an understanding of how Canadian history and U.S. history really can’t be separated in this context. We have to study it together.”

Davis said that the success of the Underground Railroad was due to the fact that two communities – anti-slavery groups from the Michigan and Canadian sides – worked together in aiding the freedom of 30,000 to 50,000 slaves who crossed the Detroit River.

Because of this, the scholars said, the Detroit River borderland not only deserves national but international recognition.

 “We have our own Underground Railroad from Michigan to Canada, and it’s basically a Midwestern story,” said Tucker. “Historians have not really touched on this history. It’s been done by community people primarily… My hope is that this book will give this region its recognition.”

The book covers a wide range of subjects, highlighting activists, issues and important moments.

Readers will learn that abolitionists Frederick Douglas and John Brown met in Detroit, though they disagreed about Brown’s plans for the Harper's Ferry Raid.

Readers also will learn about women, men, communities and institutions that played intricate roles in the Underground Railroad in this region.

“This book is going to be in the hands of Congress, and it will be in the hands of the Parliament of Canada,” said Frost.