McGraw, Bill. "Slavery is a quiet part of city's past: Prominent historical figures [e.g. William Macomb] played key role in complex, painful era." Detroit Free Press 22 February, 2001.

Clarification posted Feb. 23, 2001: This article should have said John Askin was born in northern Ireland, in an area which is now in Northern Ireland.

Slavery is a quiet part of city's past

Prominent historical figures played key role in complex, painful era

February 22, 2001

During 2001, the Free Press will publish stories exploring area history and life as the city and region celebrate Detroit's 300th birthday.


William Macomb was a successful merchant in 18th-Century Detroit. When he died in 1796, an accountant totaled up his possessions. They included real estate, cash, furniture, horses ...

And people.

On a ledger sheet, the accountant listed Macomb's human property: Scipio, worth 130 pounds in New York currency; Tom, valued at 100 pounds; Lizette, Scipio's wife, 80 pounds, and 7-year-old Phillis, 40 pounds.

In all, Macomb owned 26 human beings.

With its straight lines, impeccable penmanship and stark numbers, the page is a relic from a chapter of Detroit's past that is little known and rarely discussed -- slavery.

Slaves were a fact of life in the city for its first 130 years, even though slavery never played the central role in Detroit that it did in the economy of the South. Like Macomb, many prominent Detroiters such as Joseph Campau, John R. Williams and Lewis Cass owned slaves.

The history of slavery remains largely unexamined in Detroit, the nation's largest city with a black majority, though slavery's legacy is not hard to find. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, continues to demand that the federal government give serious consideration to paying reparations for slavery, and federal judges have heard two cases recently concerning affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

In the past 60 years, two riots in the city have claimed 77 lives and left Detroit with an image of unresolved anger over race.

Elsewhere, people and institutions outside the Deep South are investigating their involvement in the slave trade, no matter how tangential. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore recently apologized for slave ownership in that city by early Catholics, including a bishop.

In Hartford, Conn., the Aetna insurance company and the Courant newspaper issued apologies after discovering that their companies had profited from insuring and advertising slaves.

In general, historians have paid little attention to slavery in the North. Michigan textbooks and museums rarely deal with it.

A current exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum, "30 who Dared," includes two early merchants "who made a difference" -- Campau and John Askin -- but fails to note they owned slaves.

At the Detroit Public Library, students have watched a locally produced video during Black History Month about civil rights. It discusses how "slavery was such an institution in the American South" but never mentions slavery in Michigan.

"To be honest, I don't think many people know much about that era," said Dr. Norman McRae, a longtime Detroit educator and black history specialist. "There's a great deal of denial by whites and some blacks about the whole thing. It's painful. They don't want to confront it."

Generations of Michigan schoolkids have learned a noble version of local history before the Civil War: Laws ostensibly banned slavery, and state residents helped numerous slaves from the South gain their freedom through the Underground Railroad.

That leaves the impression that Detroit was a liberal bastion of righteous citizens fighting for the abolition of human bondage.

Indeed, many whites were sympathetic to blacks.

But the reality is much more complex, and much less uplifting.

The reality: Most residents who could afford slaves owned them in the French, British and early American periods of Detroit. And, after slavery ended in Michigan in the 1830s, black people remained second-class citizens, and Detroit partially remained an enclave of resistance against the growing wave of abolitionist sentiment that swept the North before the Civil War.

During that time, Detroit's leading politician (Lewis Cass), its leading ethnic group (the Irish) and its leading newspaper (the Free Press) all fought -- sometimes viciously -- the idea of freeing the slaves.

Owning human beings

William Macomb, Joseph Campau and John Askin were hardly alone.

The few historians who have examined Detroit between 1701 and 1837, when Michigan gained statehood, agree that many wealthy families owned slaves. In 1779, a census listed 141 slaves, likely both blacks and Indians, among a population of 1,776, almost 8 percent. Slave-holding appeared to have peaked in 1796, when the Americans took control of Detroit from the British, and a census listed 300 slaves.

Other slave owners include the Beaubien family; the Baby family; John R. Williams, Detroit's first elected mayor; Alexander Macomb, the namesake of Macomb County; John Hamtramck, the namesake of Hamtramck; Elijah Brush; George McDougall, and James Abbott.

Detroiter Charles Gouin's property in the early 1800s was listed as two oxen, two cows, two pieces of property and two slaves.

Cass, the Detroiter who ran for president during the slavery debate in 1848, always denied he had been a slave owner. But his biographer, Wichita State University history professor Willard Carl Klunder, discovered an 1818 letter that appears to show Cass was negotiating the sale of a servant named Sally with a member of the Macomb family.

During the American Revolution, when Detroit was a British outpost, two eastern merchants, James Phyn and Alexander Ellice, wrote to a Detroiter, John Porteous, about the slaves he had ordered.

"We have contracted with a gentleman for some green negroes to be delivered the first of August, and then your wench will be forwarded, along with the negro boy. We apprehend he will be useful to you, or advantageous about the sloop, or you can dispose of him as you find best. The price is fifty pounds each."

Campau was one of Detroit's wealthiest citizens in the early 1800s. His slaves were named Crow, who performed acrobatic tricks from the top of Ste. Anne's Church; Hannah; Tetro, and Mullett, who served as Campau's clerk.

Born in Northern Ireland, Askin was a fur merchant and supplier to the British army before he settled in Detroit, where he became a successful landowner and businessman.

One expert has written that the mother of three of Askin's 12 children was an Indian slave named Monette, and Askin owned a number of slaves during his life, including Jupiter, Tom, George, Susannah and two children, Mary and Sam.

In October 1794, Detroiter James May sold Askin a man named Pompey for 45 pounds. Three months later, Askin sold Pompey to James Donaldson, for 50 pounds.

May wrote Askin in 1801, telling him that the death of one of May's slaves in a shipwreck had deeply affected his one remaining slave, a woman. He asked Askin for help.

" ...Being now deprived of the two best servants in this country, my situation is very distressing, unless you will condescend to let your boy George remain with me until I can have time to look about for a servant ..."

In 1803, Alexander Grant informed Askin that another local family was having trouble with its slaves.

"Mr. Duff and Phillis has been for this week past perplexed and troubled very much with a cursed negro wench they bought some time ago from Capt. Elliott. She and a negro man are both in gaol here for theft ..."

Slavery's origins

Slavery in Detroit started soon after the French founded the city in 1701, according to two historians who have studied the era, Jorge Castellanos and David Katzman. "Originally an Indian institution, Michigan slavery was forged as a European institution under the protection of the Catholic Church of New France," Katzman wrote.

McRae, who retired 10 years ago as director of the department of social studies and fine arts for Detroit Public Schools, discovered that in 1739, the Rev. Bonaventure Leonard baptized two young black men in Detroit who were property of Louis Campeau. Leonard wrote in the registry at Ste. Anne's Church that Campeau promised to raise them like his own children and would sell them only to Catholics. "Without this compliance, I would not have baptized them," Leonard wrote.

The life of a slave on the northern frontier differed greatly from that of a slave in the South. The Michigan economy revolved around fur trapping, and there were no plantations or large farms that required numerous slaves. With more than two dozen humans, William Macomb was Detroit's largest slaveholder. Two or three slaves per family was the average.

Detroit was not a "slave society," like the south, but a "society with slaves," Castellanos wrote.

Historians also say slavery in Detroit was not as harsh as in the South. They note the settlers here were farmers, not rich plantation owners. Many worked alongside their slaves and housed them in their homes instead of separate quarters, which few Detroiters could afford.

Nonetheless, slaves often escaped, and at least two, in 1762, killed their master. And some slaves petitioned the courts for their release.

Fighting back

Laws governing slavery in the early 1800s were muddled. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in what became Michigan, but many blacks in bondage did not win their freedom for years. Because the introduction of new slaves was banned on both sides of the Detroit River, many American slaves fled to Canada, and many Canadian slaves escaped to Detroit. There were so many ex-Canadian slaves in Detroit in 1805 that Gov. William Hull formed a militia of black Canadian runaways.

Citing an international treaty, Detroit Judge Augustus Woodward ruled in 1807 that all slaves living on May 31, 1793, and in possession of Detroiters prior to July 11, 1796, must continue to be slaves for the rest of their lives. Woodward ruled the children of slaves either must continue to be slaves until their 25th birthdays or be immediately set free, depending on their date of birth.

That case originated with a lawsuit by freed slaves Peter and Hannah Denison, who were seeking the return of their four slave children from Catherine Tucker, a British settler in Detroit. Woodward's ruling went against the parents: He said three of the Denison children were slaves for life and one was to be a slave until his 25th birthday.

Even though they lost, the Denisons typified many black residents in their assertiveness, even though early Michigan society was hardly receptive, said Katzman.

Michigan's white-run state courts and lawmakers had "schizophrenic attitudes" toward black rights in this era, said U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who examined the treatment of African Americans in Michigan before the Civil War as a history project.

"On the one hand, slavery was deplored, while on the other hand blacks were denied many of the benefits of the Constitution and their worth as human beings," Cohn wrote.

By the 1830s, slavery had ended in Michigan, just as the abolitionist movement was taking off across the north. Blacks hardly enjoyed the same rights as whites, though. Blacks could not vote, sit on juries or marry white people in Michigan. Slave hunters roamed the state in search of runaways from the South.

Despite restrictions that remained on their freedom, black Detroiters armed themselves with clubs and guns in June 1833 and fought authorities to protect a black couple, Ruth and Thornton Blackburn, who had been seized as runaway slaves from Kentucky after living 2 years in the city.

It was a startling demonstration of black power, and it resulted in the escape of the Blackburns to Canada, the death of the sheriff and widespread backlash against black residents of Detroit.

Wrote Katzman: " ...Slavery in Michigan, unlike slavery in the American South, laid the foundation for a sensitive and militant black community that unceasingly fought for political, economic and social equality throughout the 19th Century."

  • Friday: 19th-Century Detroit and the debate over slavery.

    Contact BILL McGRAW at 313-223-4781 or MORE WAYNE COUNTY STORIES