Let’s revisit Frederick Douglass’ historic Detroit visits

OK, maybe not everyone knows who Frederick Douglass is, but we in Detroit certainly do. After all, the legendary abolitionist’s name is scattered about in a few places around town, from the Douglass branch of the Detroit Public Library on the city’s west side to the Douglass Academy for Young Men, a Detroit public high school.

Not always top of mind is Douglass’ actual activities in Detroit while he was still living. (He is dead, but again – do certain people currently in power actually realize that?) Douglass made a historic visit to Detroit’s city hall in 1859 – in the midst of the Civil War — during a nationwide tour lecturing on abolition. Per “This is Detroit, 1701-2001”: That evening, he talked about the moral dilemma of slavery and its negative effect upon master and slave.

John Brown, a white abolitionist, had been in Detroit that same day. He had been in Detroit frequently, helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada. Douglass and Brown’s paths would cross that day, thanks to Detroit’s small but burgeoning black community. Per Detroit1701.org:

Both John Brown and Frederick Douglass were very well known to abolitionists and to the small prosperous black elite that lived in Detroit and other northern cities. Census 1860 counted only 1,400 blacks in Detroit’s population of 46,000, but there were a few prosperous black families and three prominent African-American congregations with their own sanctuaries: Second Baptist dating from 1837; Bethel African-Methodist Episcopal dating from 1841 and St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal dating from 1846. Leaders of Detroit’s black community arranged for John Brown to meet Frederick Douglass.

Douglass believed that slavery was rooted in misguided beliefs, thinking that slave masters were erroneously using Biblical principles to enforce the practice – or, at the very least, have more logistical, thought-out plans with strength in numbers rather than radical action. Douglass wanted to appeal to slave owners using a more peaceful approach. Brown, however, “to convince Frederick Douglass that a peaceful end of slavery was impossible and that violence was needed.”


The two met at the home of William Webb, a prominent black Detroiter and abolitionist. (It is believed that Webb Avenue on the city’s west side may be named after him.) The home was on East Congress Street – not too far where the present-day Greektown Casino and Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters are, and is now marked with a Michigan Historical Marker. Per the historical tome “Life is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915-1945”:

Brown met with Douglass and several Detroit black leaders at the home of William Webb. Douglass objected to Brown’s original plan to raid single plantations until he had assembled about a thousand slaves, with whom he would then “swoop down on the large towns and cities, collecting forces and material as he progressed.” According to a newspaper account eleven years later, Brown became angry at Douglass’s objection and implied that perhaps Douglass was a coward. Douglass denied the implication and said he would give material aid if he chose not to approve of or participate in the planned insurrection. Local black leader George de Baptiste also objected to the plan, but in its place he proposed a gunpowder plot to blow up fifteen of the largest churches in the South on a fixed Sunday…

The meeting marked a radical change in Detroit blacks’ perception of the struggle. They became desperated enough to seriously discuss revolutionary violence against the slave system….John Brown and his faithful followers went to their deaths soon after, but not without deepening black Detroit’s sense of struggle.

Though Douglass and Brown disagreed, Douglass continued to become a powerful voice for 19th-century African-Americans. In his twilight years, Douglass would visit Detroit again in 1892, this time preaching against lynching laws in the South in a speech called “The Lessons of the Hour,” which was delivered in several northern cities in the 1890s. If there’s one part of the speech that proves not much has changed for blacks in more than a century, it’s this passage:

It is a real calamity, in this country, for any man, guilty or not guilty, to be accused of crime, but it is an incomparably greater calamity for any colored man to be so accused. Justice is often painted with bandaged eyes. She is described in forensic eloquence, as utterly blind to wealth or poverty, high or low, white or black, but a mask of iron however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial. Here, even more than elsewhere, he will find all presumptions of law and evidence against him. It is not so much the business of his enemies to prove him guilty, as it is the business of himself to prove his innocence. The reasonable doubt which is usually interposed to save the life and liberty of a white man charged with crime, seldom has any force or effect when a colored man is accused of crime. Indeed, color is a far better protection to the white criminal, than anything else.

You can read Douglass’ full version of “The Lessons of the Hour” here.

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