The band on your wrist says “slave.” The dark road ahead is unknown.
Beyond every dark curve, every step down, danger awaits. Each soul fleeing on the Underground Railroad knows the risk. “We got to keep moving,” the conductor urges, pushing the group deeper into the woods. In the darkness of an Indiana way station, a fist pounds on the door. “Open up!” a bounty hunter’s voice shouts. You hold your breath and shiver.
Even though you know this is just a reenactment, the Underground Railroad Living Museum in Detroit makes the hair rise on the back of your neck. It makes you uneasy, hopeful and emotional, especially when you finally see the shining raft awaiting you at the Detroit River to take you to freedom.
For those who take the tour, “there is a certain amount of healing that takes place,” says Lewis Smith, general manager and associate pastor of the First Congregational Church of Detroit, the location for the museum and tour.
The real Underground Railroad was a series of improvised way stations and abolitionists who secretly assisted people out of slavery north into freedom between 1840 and 1863, before the Civil War.
Why is the Congregational church involved with the story? The red sandstone church has been a fixture on Forest and Woodward Avenue since 1891. But before that, its church was near the Detroit River at Fort Street and Wayne (now Washington Boulevard). There, they hid fugitives who were lucky enough to reach “Midnight”—the code name for Detroit—just before they crossed the waterway to Canada.
Because of this connection, the church used a “Detroit 300” educational grant in 2001 to create the Flight to Freedom tour as a storytelling reenactment. Designed by then-pastor Rev. Lettie Jones-Hood and the congregation, the tour is different from that of other Detroit Underground Railroad sites. More theatrical and humble, located in a warren of dim rooms in the church basement, “it is complementary, not in competition with” other spots, Smith says.
The busiest months for tours are February (Black History Month), July and August. Visitors see a film in the church chapel then descend stairs with their conductor to start the dangerous trip from Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana north to Kentucky, the Ohio River, Indiana and Michigan, ending in Detroit. Each stop features an actor (a church volunteer) who plays a role in the journey. The experience can be intense, and some people get anxious or even tearful, Smith says. Yet all leave knowing more about the Underground Railroad than they did before.
“A lot of black people don’t know that some white Quakers helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. To find that out is healing,” Smith says. “Also, people don’t realize how long the journey took (up to two years) through lands you didn’t know.”
Congregationalists were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement, including Harriett Beecher Stowe, who wrote the influential novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Smith says that visitors often come away with a sad feeling about the injustices of the past. Nobody can change the brutal fact that America engaged in slavery, but “I tell them that there are still societal injustices today that you can do something about,” he says. He also tells visitors “this is not just black history. It’s not just Detroit history. It’s American history.”
They nod and begin to understand.
Black History in Detroit
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History: Comprehensive exhibits include the Underground Railroad story. thewright.org
Detroit Historical Museum: The “Doorway to Freedom” exhibit details Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad. detroithistorical.org
Gateway to Freedom: A stately sculpture in honor of the Underground Railroad shows six people looking across the river to Canada and freedom. Hart Plaza at the Detroit River.
Historic First Congregational Church of Detroit Underground Railroad Living Museum: Offers the Flight to Freedom tours. Tour dates and times vary. Be sure to peek into the beautiful sanctuary of this historic church after your tour is over. friendsoffirst.com
Second Baptist Church/Detroit Underground Railroad Historical Society: The oldest African American church in the Midwest (built in 1857) hid people on their journey north. ugrrbookstore.com
Photos by Ellen Creager
This article originally appeared in the 2019 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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