Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and a key moment in Detroit's abolitionist history
This story from Morning Edition on Michigan Radio is the first in a series for Black History Month about places that have played an important role in shaping African-American history and culture in Michigan.
The spot where Frederick Douglass and John Brown once held a meeting in downtown Detroit has changed a lot since 1859. Today, there are big buildings, parking lots, and concrete sidewalks near St. Antoine and Congress. There's a historical marker commemorating the meeting, too. But when two of the most significant figures in the movement to abolish slavery got together here, it was a residential neighborhood.
"This would have been a dirt road," Jamon Jordan says as he stands at the intersection. "There would have been houses and there would have been a church across the street called St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, the third Black church in the city of Detroit, and a station on the Underground Railroad."
Jordan is the official historian for the City of Detroit. He also runs historical tours through his business, the Black Scroll Network. But he's been giving talks at this site since he brought classes here years ago when he was a middle school teacher.
A gathering of abolitionists
Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass later became an author, one of the country's great orators, and a leading advocate for Black rights and Black freedom. John Brown is best known for organizing a raid on a U.S. military site at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. Neither man is well known for having connections to Detroit or Michigan. Jordan says when they met on March 12, 1859, Brown was making plans for the raid he would carry out later that year.
"Brown is a conductor on The Underground Railroad. He's helping 13 people escape from slavery, and while here [in Detroit], he's hiding some of them at the home of William Webb, where where he's staying. Others are being hidden over at Second Baptist Church, which is a couple of blocks away. He's here on his way to take them across to Canada," Jordan says.
"Douglass is in town to give two speeches, one at Second Baptist Church, and so, John Brown sees this as a great opportunity to try to convince Frederick Douglass to join his plans for Harpers Ferry."
A community of abolitionists
Webb, the host of the meeting, was African-American and made his living as a grocer. He was part of the Detroit Vigilant Committee, which was an organization that supported the Underground Railroad. Jordan says in addition to hiding people escaping from slavery in his home, Webb also played another key role in the abolitionist movement.
"At that time, they used the term octoroon [meaning] he's one-eighth Black, which means [Webb] can pass for white. He can go into places and listen to what white people are talking about, including slave catchers and bounty hunters, and report back to the group. So, he is, in Detroit at least, a spy on the Underground Railroad," Jordan says.
Jordan notes that other African-Americans attended the meeting, too.
"Most of these men are business people. All of these people would have been middle class or wealthy, and they're using part of their wealth and their resources to fund the Underground Railroad in the city of Detroit because there is no Ford Foundation or Kellogg grants in the Underground Railroad days," he says.
"They're meeting at this home to talk and listen to John Brown. And some people are supportive of the idea [of the Harpers Ferry raid], even though they don't think that it's probably going to work."
Brown had adopted a philosophy that violence was the only route to ending slavery. Brown's plan was to steal weapons the U.S. military was storing at Harpers Ferry and to use them to arm a militia to fight a war to end slavery.
Jordan says Douglass had a more nuanced view of the best path forward.
"John Brown, at this point, really believes that to end slavery, not only does he have to be willing to die for freedom. He believes that he has to be willing to kill white people, particularly people who are part of the slave aristocracy: the slave owners, the slave catchers, the people who are supporting the bureaucracy to keep slavery going," he says.
"But Douglass, who used to hold some of those same views, has really evolved to a different level. And what he believes is that to fight slavery is not just to fight those groups of people. Those are not your only enemies. To fight slavery means to fight the United States. If you want to wage this war against slavery, you have to gear up and understand that you are fighting America. Or you're going to have to win America over to the side of the abolitionist. Those are your two options."
Jordan says Douglass didn't oppose violence in the quest for freedom.
"He does believe that if a person is escaping, they may use violence, they may use whatever they can to escape. But he believes that John Brown's plan is going to be doomed to failure because the weapons he gets at that military warehouse that won't be enough to fight America."
Brown and Douglass would meet again in other places before Brown carried out the raid on October 16, 1859. It was not successful. Two of Brown's sons were killed, and Brown was eventually tried for treason, convicted, and hung. But Jordan says Brown's death did prove to be a turning point.
"He becomes a martyr and a hero to the movement of freedom, and helps to really energize the abolitionists, and help actually propel the country into a civil war."
Michigan's abolitionist legacy
The meeting between Douglass and Brown is just a sliver of Michigan's part in the anti-slavery movement. Detroit's proximity to Canada, which banned slavery years before the U.S., made it an abolitionist hub, but it was far from the only one.
"Jackson and Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Adrian, and Battle Creek and Cass County are major sites for the battle against slavery. The Black community in Michigan, particularly in the city of Detroit, is really founded on the fight for freedom," Jordan says.
And he says Douglass would return to Detroit.
"This wasn't his first time and won't be his last time coming here. The reason why Frederick Douglass is here is because of his connection with the [local] Underground Railroad activists and because of Detroit's important role in the Underground Railroad."
Lauren Talley contributed to this story.
Editor's note: Some quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of this page.