Two of the nation’s most important abolitionists met at this site on March 12, 1859. Slavery disappeared in the Michigan territory and all the northern states during the early decades of the 1800s. Fugitive slaves who made their way to northern cities generally found abolitionists and free blacks who protected them, so they were seldom returned to bondage in the South. Most religious and political leaders in the North called for an end of slavery and, at the start of the Nineteenth Century, the eventual emancipation of slaves seemed possible. But, after the invention of the cotton gin, southern planters and businessmen realized there were tremendous profits in this labor-intensive crop, so they strongly defended both their right to hold blacks in bondage and their right to extend slavery into the Gulf Coast states and Texas where, they presumed, cotton would thrive. Congress attempted to enact compromises with the hope that they would limit and then end slavery, but southerners dominated the House and the Senate so they effectively thwarted such efforts.
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, moved to Baltimore and then to New England where his abilities were recognized by the prominent abolitionists. He was an extremely effective and eloquent speaker who traveled this country—and in Britain—raising funds for the abolitionist movement. For the most part, Douglass and other abolitionists argued that the fight against American slavery was a moral crusade rooted in Christian principles. Indeed, many of the leading abolitionists were Protestant ministers. They rejected the idea of ending bondage through violence such as a military invasion of slave states or by arming slaves so that they could rise up and slay their masters. They called for political compromises and strategies that would end slavery and hoped their moral crusades would lead slaveholders to recognize the moral depravity of holding blacks in bondage. Britain ended slavery in its empire without bloodshed. Most abolitionists presumed that was possible in the United States.
John Brown was born in New York state in 1800 and became an accomplished sheep raiser near Akron, Ohio. He underwent a religious conversion in the 1837. He came to believe that he had an obligation to end slavery using whatever means were necessary. While most abolitionists rejected violence, Brown argued that political strategies would not end slavery. He traveled extensively to meetings of abolitionists and cultivated an image of himself as an Old-Testament warrior ready to use violence in his moral cause.
The Compromise of 1850 called for the admission of Kansas as a state, but allowed the territory’s residents to decide whether it would be a free or a slave state. Thinking the area would be excellent for cotton, slavery advocates went to Kansas to ensure it would be a slave state, thereby adding two pro-slavery members to the US Senate. The abolitionist movement sent other settlers to Kansas to make sure that it would become a free state. John Brown was well known among abolitionists, but was not a nationally known figure until he went to Kansas as a militant abolitionist who carried out his plans to use force. At this point in the mid-1850s, Kansas became known as Bloody Kansas. Pro-slavery advocates used force to harass and chase away abolitionists who tried to settle there. John Brown, with a small group of fellow militants, used force to defend the abolitionists in Kansas. True to his ideals, he presumed he had a duty to kill the pro-slavery forces. He was the leader of what was known as the Pottawatomie Massacre—an incident occurring on May 24, 1856 in which Brown and his allies attacked pro-slavery advocates, taking five of them from their homes and hacking them to death. Violence between Brown’s forces and his opponents continued. The federal government sought John Brown for his role in the Pottawatomie murders, so he went into hiding. He traveled the country raising funds for his campaign in Kansas and seeking volunteers who would join the bloody fight to make Kansas a free state. A network of abolitionists protected and supported him, although few responded to his call to arms.
The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 terminated all hopes of a peaceful end of slavery. Chief Justice Taney and his colleagues declared that the Constitution gave Congress no right to limit slavery, that living in a free state for many years did not confer freedom upon a slave and that the Constitution granted blacks—free or enslaved—no rights. In essence, it declared that the Constitution permitted slavery throughout the nation. John Brown became increasingly convinced that violence was needed to end bondage and began developing a plan to seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia—about 65 miles west of Washington. Apparently, he hoped to take guns and munitions from that arsenal and give them to slaves in western Virginia with the expectation that they would move to freedom in Canada. He also knew of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 in Southampton, County Virginia in which slaves killed 55 whites. Brown probably assumed that the slaves he freed would similarly dispatch their masters if necessary.
John Brown visited Kansas frequently, but also
helped slaves to escape to Canada. On January 20, 1859, Brown began a long
journey from Kansas with
eleven slaves that he helped to take from Missouri. He took them across the
Detroit River to freedom in Ontario on March 12. 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.
Protestant Episcopal dating from 1846. Leaders of Detroit’s black
community arranged for John Brown to meet Frederick Douglass. Douglass and
known each other since their meeting in New England in 1845 since they were
both active abolitionists. Brown had stayed at Douglass’ home in New
England the previous year. The meeting on March 12, 1859 in Detroit gave
John Brown one more opportunity to convince Frederick Douglass that a peaceful
end of slavery was impossible and that violence was needed. Douglass apparently
listed carefully to Brown, sympathesized with his aims, but refused endorse
his strategy. Douglass was just as consistent in rejecting a violent solution
to slavery as Brown was in advocating it.
In the early fall of 1859, John Brown moved to southern Pennsylvania, just north of Harper’s Ferry. Apparently, he hoped that as many as 4,000 militant abolitionists would join him to attack Harper’s Ferry, but he actually recruited only 21 followers. Once again, he called for a meeting with Frederick Douglass to get his support. Douglass met Brown in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Brown explained his plan to storm the arsenal and arm slaves, and Douglass refused to support it. Apparently, Douglass thought that it was totally impractical.
On Sunday evening October 16, John Brown and
a few followers attacked Harper’s
Ferry. In just a few hours, they took over the arsenal, killing seven people
in the process. Indeed, the first person his troops killed was a free black
who was the baggage man on a train that passed through the village. Brown’s
forces cut telegraph lines, but after holding the train for five hours,
permitted it to travel to Baltimore. As soon as it arrived there, the crew
officials of the insurrection in Harper’s Ferry. President Buchanan
sent General Robert E. Lee with one hundred troops to take the arsenal back
from John Brown. By Monday afternoon, General Lee and his troops arrived
at Harper’s Ferry and began retaking the arsenal. Within 36 hours of
the start, Brown and his forces surrendered to federal troops. Some of his
colleagues escaped to Canada, but John Brown was taken into custody.
John Brown knew that his trial would focus the nation’s attention upon the issue of slavery and would emphasize the futility of a political solution. Knowing that Brown would become a tremendous hero to the anti-slavery movement if he were executed, government prosecutors gave him the option of an insanity defense that would save his life. Brown knew that the trial gave him an opportunity to speak eloquently about the need to end slavery and, quite likely, correctly presumed that his execution would hasten the war that was needed to end slavery. John Brown was convicted and then hung on December 2, 1859. Although Frederick Douglass consistently refused to endorse Brown’s use of violence, he was charged with being an accomplice. He escaped to Canada and then went to Britain before charges were dropped. He returned to the United States and became a leading spokesman for African-Americans for another thirty years.
The State of Michigan Historical Marker lists
several Detroit black men who attended the 1859 meeting of Douglas and
Brown. David Katzman, in Before
the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century, (University of
Illinois Press, 1973), provides extensive information about several of them:
William Lambert — This New Jersey man moved to Detroit and earned his living as a clothing merchant and tailor. He was very active in the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad in Detroit and in the development of education for blacks. In the 1830s, Michigan’s legislature originally established a public school system for whites only. A Michigan historic marker at 1930 East Jefferson commemorates Lambert’s home site.
George deBaptiste — He was a free black from Virginia who moved to Indiana and worked as a barber. He later moved to Washington and was employed as chief steward in the White House during the short William Henry Harrison administration. He moved to Detroit in 1846 and devoted himself to business and civil rights activities and the abolitionist movement.
Joseph Ferguson — He was a Detroit physician, civil rights activist and father of William Ferguson, the prominent Detroit civil rights lawyer of the late Nineteenth Century, whose accomplishments were commemorated with a Michigan Historical Marker that once stood at 661 Alfred.
Rev. William S. Monroe — This priest served as pastor of St. Matthew’s Episcopal. He was one of Detroit’s most outspoken advocates of the emigration of blacks to Africa. At the start of the Civil War, he left Detroit for Africa.
William Webb — He was, apparently, one of Detroit’s more successful whitewashers.
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Historic Site: Listed
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Put in place in 2003.
Books: W. E. Burghardt DuBois, John Brown, (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Co., 1909);
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. This was originally published in 1845. Douglass was blessed with five additional decades of life. He revised and updated his book several times.
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: April, 2007