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Lifestyle

Pointing to freedom

African-American history by foot and by car

MT Photo: W. Kim Heron
Toward freedom: The Underground Railroad monument at Hart Plaza.
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Published 6/16/2010

The story of African-American Detroit — with its initiatives and acts of resistance, victories and setbacks — is hardly a story unto itself. In the context of our mini-tours, it could easily have included any number of music sites (more than just music: Motown, for instance, was America's No. 1 black-owned enterprise for years, and is still arguably the most identifiable) or the industrial and labor sites (the Rouge unionization struggle was a pivot point in the history of interracial coalition-building).

But a good day could be spent walking and driving to sites and seeing exhibitions related to African-American history, from the mid-1800s through today.

You might start with an hour or so's walking loop of sites in downtown. Park your car along Congress east of I-375 — or in one of the Greektown parking lots — and check out the historical marker for the March 12, 1859, meeting of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and white soon-to-be insurrectionist John Brown. Brown had long been planning — with Douglass' knowledge — what became the attack on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, brought to its bloody fruition six months after this meeting. But one strains to imagine what the conversations might have been like at the home of black abolitionist William Webb for a who's-who gathering of abolitionist and African-American Detroit at the time when Brown was plotting nearby in Canada and Douglass was in town for an anti-slavery address. By year's end, Brown would be executed by hanging, Douglass would flee the country, and the country would teeter on the edge of the Civil War.

From there it's a couple blocks to Beaubien, and heading toward the river there's the marker for the homesite of George DeBaptiste, a lifelong foe of slavery who had been involved in the Underground Railroad in Indiana, had been a steward at the White House to President William Harrison, and became a prominent businessman and activist in Detroit's African-American community beginning in 1846, when the entire population of the city numbered less than 20,000.

Continuing on south to the riverfront alongside the Renaissance Center brings you to RiverWalk, where you head west toward Hart Plaza. The original stretch of the RiverWalk opened up during the administration of Dennis Archer (during the city's 2001 tricentennial) and has continued under Kilpatrick, Cockrel and Bing. But it's a continuation of the drive by Detroit's first black mayor, Coleman A. Young, to open the riverfront and see development from bridge (Ambassador) to bridge (MacArthur at Belle Isle). We're still not there yet.

At Hart Plaza, there's a monument to African-American freedom seekers of the Underground Railroad, nine escapees and a "conductor" gazing toward Canada, where, unlike Detroit, undocumented freedmen were beyond the clutches of the slave-catchers. The explanatory material at the base of the statue includes the broad routes that brought escapees north to Detroit — and clandestine boat rides across the river — as a major funnel point in the flight to Canada.

From there you can head back north into downtown. Crossing Jefferson Avenue, consider that, in spring 1963, this stretch of downtown was thronged with more than 100,000 marchers, marking the city's progress — and need for progress — since its 1943 race riot. The largest civil rights march outside of the South, it culminated at Cobo Hall, where Dr. Martin Luther King first uttered his most stirring line: "I have a dream ..." — a theme he would extemporaneously return to in that summer's march on Washington, that time searing the line into history.

Of course, at the median of Jefferson at Woodward, there's the Joe Louis fist, the controversial iconic gift of Sports Illustrated to the city of Detroit (thank God it wasn't a monument to Casanova, the late City Councilman Clyde Cleveland observed), though if you're so moved you can detour to Cobo Hall to see the kind of "lifelike" Louis statue most Detroiters probably would have preferred. Keep moving up Woodward, and south of Campus Martius there's the 1872 Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, paying homage to local troops — white and black — who fought in the war that Brown (more or less, historians rev up your arguments) set off.

Farther north and a block's veer from Woodward to the west, on Griswold (at State), there's the site of the Finney Barn, where hotelier Seymour Finney stashed runaways out back while his other guests, sometimes including the slave-catchers looking for them, were in his hotel.

From there, you might amble various routes through downtown, today's collage in motion of development and dilapidation, or zigzag more efficiently east to Monroe Street at the corner of Beaubien. The forerunners of today's Second Baptist Church congregation formed in 1839, moving to the current site 18 years later. It was a hotbed of activism — abolitionism, Underground Railroad-ism, self-help-ism. And it was at this site, in 1863, that Detroit's African-American community gathered to celebrate news that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

That brings you close to your car again — and some options. For one, there's eating, and should hunger call, and you haven't stopped at any of the eateries along the route, the offshoot of Steve's Soul Food — Steve's Downtown (1440 E. Franklin, 313-393-0018) — beckons.

If you're up for more history in a day, Cultural Center exhibits at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History and the Detroit Historical Museum, respectively, continue the themes of your stroll. At the Wright Museum there's Joe Louis: Hometown Hero, and at the historical museum there's Doorway to Freedom — Detroit and the Underground Railroad.

And, before or after the museums, you could extend your drive some miles east and see, for instance, the Ossian Sweet House, tucked in a struggling-to-despairing neighborhood a couple miles east of Mount Elliott and south of Mack, at 2905 Garland. That's where, in 1925, a rock-throwing white mob intent on driving an African-American family from the neighborhood was answered by gunshots from an upper window. The murder trial of the homeowner, Dr. Ossian Sweet, and his co-defendants was most recently retold in Kevin Boyle's 2004 award-winning Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.

Within a near orbit to the north and west of the museums lie such sites as the Shrine of the Black Madonna (a black Christ unveiled in 1967 was national news, and this is the Mother Shrine for a number of Pan African Orthodox Christian Churches around the country, and has been a force in city politics) and New Bethel Baptist Church (base for the Rev. C.L. Franklin, an influential pastor and political force long before he was known as the father of Aretha, who grew up singing here). The churches are near-neighbors at 7635 and 8430 Linwood, respectively. The intersection that entered history as the starting point of the 1967 riot is a few miles away from the churches at Rosa Parks (formerly 12th Street) and Clairmount.

Also within a few miles is the Orsel McGhee house (4626 Seebaldt, near Grand River and Grand Boulevard), a contrast to the story of the Sweet house. White neighbors took the McGhees to court for violating a deed clause barring African-American purchasers. The NAACP, represented by a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And won in 1948.

For more related sites, see the Detroit African-American History Project (daap.wayne.edu). Among groups and individuals conducting guided tours is Stewart McMillin at mcmillintours.com. For nearby Canadian sites see visitwindsor.com and blackhistoricalmuseum.org.

W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to wkheron@metrotimes.com

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