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Early Black Detroit

Early Black Detroit

When the British took possession of Detroit in 1763, evidence of African slaves emerged. Black slaves were initially brought to Detroit by bands of Native Americans who captured them during raids on southern plantations when Detroit was under French rule.

Official British-Canadian records from 1773 indicated that there were 96 slaves in Detroit. By 1782, there were 78 male and 101 female slaves. In the 1810 census, Detroit counted 96 free blacks and 17 slaves. By 1830, blacks were migrating to Michigan, and it was estimated that approximately 500 blacks, both free and runaway slaves aided by the Underground Railroad, resided there.

On April 13, 1827, a Michigan law was passed requiring all black people to register at the county clerk’s office after May 1, 1827. Those who couldn't provide papers to prove their freedom were not lawfully permitted to live in the Michigan territory. However, this law wasn't strictly enforced, and it didn't deter blacks from coming to Michigan. In cases where enforcement was feared, blacks simply crossed the Detroit River safely into Canada.

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Between 1830 and 1861, Detroit played a crucial role as a pivotal point for slaves traveling to freedom in Canada. Occasionally, slaves were apprehended in Detroit and returned to the South, but they were typically protected. Consequently, slaves believed that reaching Detroit ensured their safety.

In October of 1850, a riot was narrowly averted when a runaway slave was arrested under a fugitive slave law that was opposed by the majority of Detroiters. Soldiers were summoned to quell the disturbance. The former slave managed to evade being returned to his master, outwitting the Detroiters.

Before the failed Harper’s Ferry raid by John Brown, he brought 14 slaves from Missouri to Detroit. Brown successfully guided them to freedom across the Detroit River on March 12, 1859. That same night, Frederick Douglass delivered an anti-slavery lecture before meeting with John Brown, John Richards, George DeBaptiste, William Webb, all abolitionists, at William Webb’s home located at 185 Congress Street.

Prior to the Civil War, approximately 500 blacks lived in Detroit. 

On August 16, 1908, the Detroit Free Press published the article, “Colored Citizens Doing Much in City’s March of Progress.”  The article reported,

“That Detroit has good reason to be proud of its representative colored citizens is the opinion of those who have had business dealings with them.  By representative colored citizens is meant the older residents of the city who have grown up here, have received their early education here and take pride in the city’s growth.  About two months ago some of the leading colored men of the city organized ‘The Business Men’s Council’ starting with a membership of 200 and increasing rapidly until today it has an enrollment of nearly 600. Meetings are held at the Elks’ temple, 153 Gratiot avenue, to establish cordial relations between themselves and the white people of the city and to take steps to instruct those colored brothers who have not lived here long in the history of the lives of the earlier residents.

Up to the year 1896 the relations between the whites and the blacks were decidedly friendly and even cordial.  The attitude of the inn keepers of Detroit toward the colored people was more friendly than it is today.  There has been a decided change since that time that the reason for the change is said to be due to the fact that the opening of the race tracks at Highland Park, Grosse Pointe and Windsor has brought into the city a large number of newcomers, many of whom might be classed as ‘undesirables.’

The object of the council is to exert good influence over the newcomers, and for this purpose historians have been selected to go over the past and bring before their minds the fact that the earliest colored residents have won the good esteem of their white brothers by proper conduct and good citizenship.


Among the oldest settlers is Robert J. Willis, the president of the organization.  ‘I remember well,’ said he, ‘when we were not allowed to attend the schools that the white children attended.  But the white people helped us when we were not able to help ourselves and we ought to be, and are, grateful to them.  Therefore it is our duty now to reciprocate by elevating ourselves, raising our ideals and doing all we can to help our weak and erring colored brothers.  Our ambition is to place our race in a position where the white people will be proud of us. 

‘In 1870, the colored schools – there were three of them were abolished.  One was located at Macomb and Riopelle streets, another on Rowena, then Kentucky street, and the third on Fort street, between Hastings and St. Antoine.  I was one of the pupils in 1870 who marched in a body to the Everett school in September of that year and took our places with the white pupils.  We had our troubles and our fights, too.  At first we were placed in separate rooms, later in the same rooms, but off on the side by ourselves.  Today no discrimination is shown.  The white people of Detroit have opened to us the doors of hope.  I am happy to say that so far as Detroit is concerned, the two races understand each other.

Robert J. Willis was a lawyer and inventor, while Elijah McCoy served as the third vice-president of The Business Men’s Council. In the same article, it was noted that among the 17,500 black Detroiters, approximately one-quarter were voters.

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By 1910, the number had reached 5,741, and by 1920, there were 40,838 black Detroiters out of a total population of 993,678. It's not surprising that a host of problems accompanied the influx of black newcomers, who primarily hailed from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. According to the pamphlet "Negro New-Comers in Detroit, Michigan" (1918) by sociologist George Edmund Haynes,

“Naturally the settlement of these Negro new-comers in this city has created far-reaching community problems.  The problem of housing, for instance, has been greatly intensified because of the rapid increase of other elements of the city’s population.  For many years preceding 1915, Detroit had a small Negro population.  It consisted mainly of families of a high grade both in intelligence and well-being.  They lived in various parts of the city, self-respecting and respected for their intelligence and moral character.  Some of them held responsible places in the business, professional and community life of the city. 

 About ten years ago, the crusade in other sections of the Country against race-tracks and the popularity of a race-track at Windsor, Canada, just across the river from Detroit, brought many Negroes of the undesirable type to the city.  The freedom from police interference caused Detroit to be known as a ‘wide-open town.’  Disreputable characters of other kinds than those who follow the race-track were drawn from other large cities.  The beginning of a Negro ghetto in the region of St. Antoine and Hastings Streets and Adams Avenue was made.

Then came the Great War.  The industrial demands of Detroit for laborers became imperative.  Negroes were drawn to the city by the hundreds daily.  These new-comers were usually of the honest, industrious type who were seeking conditions better than those under which they were living.  They were for the most part unskilled and with little education but were seeking better things.

These people have had to find their homes largely in the crowded Negro district which had been formed before their influx.  As the population grew it expanded North to about Rowena Street and South to about Macomb, within about 20 city blocks – some of the blocks are small compared with the size of a usual city block.  They were over crowded in this district.  They overflowed toward the North beyond Brady Street, toward the South below Lafayette Street, toward the East beyond Rivard Street and toward the West to about Beaubien Street.  They share the neighborhood with kindly Jews.  Toward the North end of the district Jews predominate.  Going toward the East they have pushed into an Italian neighborhood.”

Housing was scarce yet in high demand. Haynes reported that 12,000 to 15,000 blacks paid exorbitant rent for overcrowded and unsanitary housing in an area meant to accommodate half that number. He noted,

“The majority of the houses are in very bad repair, many of them actual shanties.  Less than one-half of the houses probably have bath-rooms or inside toilets.  The rents are exceedingly high.  The average rent per room of these houses occupied by Negroes has been estimated at $5.90, while the estimated average rent per room for the city at large is $4.25.  The prevailing rent per family ranges between $20 per month and $44 per month.  These rents on houses occupied by colored people have had an estimated increase during the past eighteen months from 50 per cent to as much as 350 per cent in some cases.”

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