Early Black Detroit

Early Black Detroit

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

The official British-Canadian records of 1773 indicated there were 96 slaves in Detroit.  In 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.  At that time it was estimated that there were approximately 500 blacks that were both free and runaway slaves that were aided by the Underground Railroad.

On April 13, 1827, a Michigan law was passed which required all black people to register at the county clerk’s office after May 1, 1827. Those who did not have their papers to prove they were free could not lawfully live in the Michigan territory.  This law did not stop blacks from coming to Michigan as it was not strictly enforced.  In the cases where it was feared it would be enforced, blacks simply crossed the Detroit River safely into Canada.

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In 1831, Thornton Blackburn and his wife Lucie, slaves from Louisville, Kentucky, ran away from their slave master and relocated to Detroit.  For more than two years Thornton and Lucie were well-liked and working as part of the Detroit community.  In the summer of 1833, the Blackburns were arrested and placed in jail for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1783 by their former slave master who found them.  They were to be charged as fugitives from labor.  After a trial by Justice Chipman, the Blackburns were turned over to Sheriff John M. Wilson and lodged in the jail. On a Sunday, Lucie was visited by two of her friends, Mrs. Madison Lightfoot and Mrs. George French at the jail.  During the visit Lucie exchanged clothes with Mrs. French and was taken in this disguise across the Detroit River into Amherstburg, Ontario.  Mrs. French was eventually released and then re-arrested for aiding Lucie before fleeing to Canada as well with her husband.

The next morning, Thornton was rescued by a mob of both black and white Detroiters.  A fight ensued and one of the rescuers was shot, while the sheriff suffered a fractured skull and some teeth.  Thornton was given a gun at some point and locked himself inside of a coach – refusing to get out and threatening to kill anyone who tried to return him to slavery.  In the confusion, he managed to slip out of the coach.  As the fighting continued and turned into a riot, soldiers were called and every black man and woman found on the street were arrested and jailed.  This became the first race riot in Detroit.  Eventually, some innocent people were released, while others had to either pay a fine or were forced to work, ball and chained on road repairs.  Those that were considered the instigators were fined and forced to work.  Ironically, it was Mrs. Lightfoot who was fined $25 for being the “prime mover in the riot” and her husband jailed for slipping the gun to Thornton.

The Blackburns were later arrested in Canada.  The Blackburns’ former slave master and the United States government demanded they be brought back to the United States.  The Canadian government refused and released the Blackburns.  Allegedly, 10 years later, Thornton 10, in disguise, went back to Louisville and rescued his mother from slavery.  The Blackburns later moved to Toronto and established a taxi service before becoming wealthy and donating land for a school.


Between 1830 and 1861, Detroit was considered a pivotal point through which slaves traveled to freedom to Canada. Occasionally, slaves were caught in Detroit and returned to the south, but usually they were protected.  As such, slaves felt if they made it to Detroit they were safe.

In October of 1850, another riot was prevented when another run-away slave was arrested under a fugitive slave law that was opposed by the majority of Detroiters.  Once again soldiers were called to quill the uproar.  The former slave was not returned to his slave master as he was outwitted by Detroiters.

Before the failed Harper’s Ferry raid by John Brown, he came to Detroit with 14 slaves from Missouri.  Brown safely delivered them to freedom across the Detroit River on March 12, 1859.  That same night, Frederick Douglas gave 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.

On March 6, 1863, as the Civil War raged on, a second race riot occurred in Detroit.  William Faulkner, a black man, on February 16, 1863, was accused of raping nine-year old Mary Brown.   According to the alleged victim, who was white, on that day she was walking to the Post Office when she was approached by a young black girl, Ellen Hoover.  The two began talking and decided to stop in a nearby saloon owned by Faulkner to warm their feet and get something to eat.  While they were there, Mary alleged Faulkner approached Ellen and lured her into a private room.   After a while, Ellen and Faulkner exited the room and tried to get Mary to go into the same room with Faulkner.  When she refused, Mary stated Ellen grabbed her and forced her into the room with Faulkner where he did what the Detroit Free Press described as “diabolical” acts.  The paper went on to say, “But the evidence of his guilt upon the lacerated person of his victim is stronger than the oaths of ten thousand negroes, even if he had witnesses to testify to his innocence.”   The Detroit Free Press frequently ran negative articles accusing blacks of causing various problems that mainly impacted the city’s working-class whites.  The newspaper pushed the notion that freed blacks leaving the South would take jobs from white men.  These stories coupled with the resentment from whites concerning the Civil War contributed to racial tension in the city.

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Faulkner denied raping Mary (and later Ellen when she accused him of the same crime).  In his version of events, he on two occasions had to run Mary away from the saloon.  During Faulkner’s trail as he was led from the jail to court and back, he was pelted with stones thrown by angry whites.  On March 6, 1863, when he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, a large mob once again attacked him on his way to jail.  The men assigned to keep order, the Detroit Provost Guard, tried to disperse the crowd, but at some point they shot blindly into the crowd.  As a result, a German man, who was watching the events unfold, was fatally injured.  The increasingly angry white mob then began attacking and mercilessly beating any black Detroiter they came upon.   As their attacks escalated, they began to set occupied black owned businesses on fire.  When it was all done, the white mob burned about 30 buildings, caused thousands of dollars in damages, killed one black man by hitting him in the head with an ax, injured dozens more, and at least 200 black residents were homeless.

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Seven years later, both Mary and Ellen recanted their stories and Faulkner was pardoned on December 31, 1869.  Upon his release, some Detroit citizens donated money to open him a stand in the community’s market.  Seven years after that, he died.

Prior to the Civil War there were approximately 500 blacks living in Detroit. 


On August 16, 1908, the Detroit Free Press published and 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 and Elijah McCoy was third vice-president of The Business Men’s Council. In that same article, it was noted that of the 17,500 black Detroiters, about one quarter were voters.

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By 1910, the number was 5,741, and by 1920, there were 40,838 black Detroiters out of a total population of 993,678. It should come as no surprise that a number of problems followed the black newcomers that hailed mostly from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee.  According to a 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 short, while being in high demand.  Haynes reported that 12,000 to 15,000 blacks paid exorbitant rent, in overcrowded and unsanitary housing in an area designed to hold 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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