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Detroit’s forgotten history of slavery detailed in new book

The New Press, 2017

There are accepted historical “facts” which do not hold up to closer scrutiny. One of those is that slavery was something that happened in the South, not the North. That is simply wrong.

A new book examines examples of Northern slavery, focusing on the early days of Detroit.

The book’s title is The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. Its author, Tiya Miles, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, joined Stateside.

Listen above for the full conversation.

On first slaves, and slavery’s persistence after a weak prohibition

Slavery began in the North with native people, who had a system of taking captives. When besting a rival nation in conflict, the nation would take the rival’s women and children and incorporate them into the nation, Miles explained. “When the French came, they actually adopted this practice and encouraged native people to trade women and children to them,” she said.

Though slavery was officially prohibited by Congress in the Northwest Territory, which included Michigan, slavery continued to exist. “That prohibition included loopholes, such that people who already lived here, that included French settlers and British settlers, could continue to hold their enslaved individuals,” she said. “And new Americans coming in were able to rent individuals, lease those individuals, and marry into slaveholder families.”  

On known Detroit figures owning slaves

Many famous Detroit figures, whose names appear all over the city on street signs and park names, like Woodward, Hull, and Brush, were involved in slavery in the city. “Each individual … had a different kind of relationship to slavery,” she said. “It was a really complex picture.” For instance, Elijah Brush held enslaved people as forced laborers, but Brush argued for the freedom of an enslaved family.

On the difficulties of finding information on northern slavery

There is a lack of scholarly knowledge on northern slavery. Miles, who was born and raised in the Midwest, was surprised to find out about the history of slavery, and only came across the history when researching the life of Michigan abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland. “It was only then, when I delved more deeply into Michigan history about abolitionism, that I realized that slavery was a real and concrete and long-lived reality here,” Miles said.

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