Review of ‘A Fluid Frontier’

By Tom Stephens

In this beautifully illustrated, deeply researched book, we recognize parallels with Detroit’s contemporary movements for water rights, urban agriculture, eviction defense and freedom schools.  It’s stunning to discover that one common element in virtually every 19th century activist’s biographical sketch presented in this volume concerns either setting up independent schools for freedom-seekers, fighting to desegregate public schools, or both!     

Our activist roots here in this transnational border community go back to the unique and revered era of the abolitionists’ “underground railroad,” which the authors properly recognize as the most important social movement of the 19th century.  They point out that the prevalent “railroad” metaphor might actually obscure the extraordinary heroism of the invisible-in-broad-daylight, grassroots community abolitionist movement.    

Further, the writers provide substantive exploration of the ways in which this transnational borderland was shaped by major historic developments such as England’s ban against slavery in its colonies, including Canada; the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; the war of 1812; the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; the 1833 Blackburn Riots in Detroit; the emergence of the free African settlements such as Amherstburg, Windsor and Sandwich on the Canadian side of the River, and the impact of John Brown’s leadership before and after his raid and execution at Harper’s Ferry.

Deep historic insights into the contemporary issues of immigration, “border security,” and the economic and political implications of water access may be derived from this volume’s tales of resistance to slavery and 19th century efforts of communities on both sides of the Detroit River to build essential social institutions and infrastructure.  Indeed, A Fluid Frontier reveals the founding elements of Detroit’s legacy as a city of freedom struggle and sanctuary that changed the world.  

If you google A Fluid Frontier, you will find a fascinating video of a panel discussion by the book’s co-editors and some of the contributors, held at University of Detroit Mercy in February 2016, accessible under the “multimedia” tab on the Wayne State University Publisher web site, or at:

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