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On this day in 1859: Opponents to slavery meet in Detroit 


On this day in 1859: Opponents to slavery meet in Detroit 

Mar 12, 2023 | 7:02 am ET
By Ken Coleman
On this day in 1859: Opponents to slavery meet in Detroit 
Frederick Douglass-John Brown Michigan Historical Marker | Ken Coleman

On March 12, 1859, abolitionists Frederick Douglass, a Black man, and John Brown, a white man, met in Detroit to discuss strategy to end slavery.   

The meeting was just before the start of the Civil War, which began in 1861. Detroit was a desirable site for the meeting in that it was a major stop along the Underground Railroad, a system of routes by land and water whereby Black slaves sought freedom in Detroit and Canada. 

They met in Detroit at the home of prominent Black resident William Webb to discuss efforts to end slavery in America. The meeting occurs near Congress at St. Antoine streets in present-day downtown Detroit. Other Detroit abolitionists at the meeting included African Americans George DeBaptiste and William Lambert. 

The 1860 U.S. Census points out that about 1,400 of Detroit’s 46,000 residents were Black. Michigan was a non- slavery state at the time of the meeting. 

Douglass, however, was born a slave in Maryland in 1818. He escaped bondage in 1838 and settled in Massachusetts. In 1852, he stated during an Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York: 

“Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”

Later in the presentation, Douglass declared: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice; I must mourn.”   

Brown, who was born in 1800 in Connecticut and the fourth of eight children, believed that violence was the only route to ending slavery. Douglass respected Brown’s approach but he also felt violence would do more harm than good. 

With that in mind, later in the year, Oct. 16, Brown led a raid on Virginia’s Harper’s Ferry, where a federal arsenal was located. The idea was to steal weapons with which to spur slave revolt. However, the effort, which included fewer than two dozen men, failed. Brown and five others were given a short trial. Brown was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. 

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 declaring “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, and the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. The three actions effectively ended slavery in America.

Douglass died in 1895. A Michigan Historical Marker was erected near the meeting site in 1962. A Detroit library branch and a school in the Motor City is named after Douglass.