by Frank Joyce
‘The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of Detroit’
by Tiya Miles
The New Press, 2017, 352 pages
Detroit is a special place. We all know that. In her remarkable book, The Dawn of Detroit, Tiya Miles helps us understand why. She takes us back to the beginning 300 years ago:
This was a place where the ground met the water, as much riverscape as landscape. The indigenous phrase “Coast of the Strait” captures the sense that Detroit took shape on organic borders, edges between one kind of environment and another. Social and political life there would come to mirror that aspect of nature, taking on the quixotic qualities of a coastline surrounded by land. Here, where waters and lands made enduring and unpredictable contact, a diverse collection of individuals settled and built their lives. They would become River People who lived, in the words of Midwestern poet Richard Quinney, “on the border, on the edge of things.”
…They were a motley bunch, the human inhabitants that would gradually populate the fertile strip along the Detroit River and give it the character of a bustling fur trade town. Hailing from points near and far— indigenous North America, French Canada, Great Britain, Africa, and what would eventually become the United States— with ranging ethnic and national backgrounds and competing cultural sensibilities, Detroit’s residents perfectly reflected the quality of the place where they dwelled. These inhabitants lived on the Coast of the Strait, on the edges of each other’s cultures, on the line between warring empires, the border between bondage and freedom.
Unknown to most contemporary residents of southeast Michigan, many of those whose names adorn the streets and institutions of Detroit were the owners and exploiters of slaves. Macomb, Beaubien, Woodward, Brush— all had some relationship to the buying, selling, owning and enslavement of Africans and Native Americans for work in the fur trade and domestic service. Some Native Americans owned slaves as well.
Though Miles exposes the brutality of the slavery system, she also gives us a picture of the humanity, skills and resistance of the Denison family and other enslaved people. We learn of their many contributions to building the foundation of a city like no other in what is now called the United States.
This is extremely valuable because as with so much of United States history, most Detroiters have been taught a fairy tale in which the “evil” of slavery was in the South, not literally in our own backyards. The Macomb family, for example, kept slaves on what is now Belle Isle (formerly Hog Island), Grosse Isle and elsewhere.
Augustus Brevoort Woodward, a New York-born lawyer practicing in Washington, D.C., was dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to Michigan to become a chief justice of the Supreme Court in Michigan Territory. He arrived in the immediate aftermath of the 1805 fire that had destroyed the city. Woodward would have a major influence over the territory’s legal infrastructure, the city’s physical layout, and the weaving of the fabric of white supremacy that prevails to this day. In an essay entitled “On Habits,” Woodward wrote:
In our country — one sees all the negroes in slavery—from his cradle he has known nothing else, the impression made by the custom has habituated him to imagine some kind of natural connection between the Africans and slavery. They are such black ugly creatures with such big lips and noses that surely God who is a wise Being & does everything right w[ould] never put rational Souls into them—They must be hewers of wood and drawers of water forever — At any rate, they must not be put on a par with that dignified being a white man.
Like so much about Detroit history, this legacy of white supremacy is intercut with slave resistance. Both indigenous people and enslaved Africans were able to maneuver within the space created by the conflict between French and British colonizers and later the forces pushing for independence from Britain. As we know from the history of the Underground Railroad, Canada became a sanctuary for many escaping enslavement.
Ultimately, of course, neither the indigenous people under the brilliant leadership of Pontiac nor the Africans were able to prevail over the ruthless white power of what became the United States. To this day, a plaque in Grosse Pointe Park marks the massacre of more than 1,000 Fox Indians in 1712; and on the west side of the city, the Birwood wall still stands as a symbol of residential segregation. Nevertheless, the historic struggles against slavery and other forms of oppression have made Detroit a beacon for visionary organizing and resistance to race-based capitalism.
Although occasionally burdened by too much detail, The Dawn of Detroit effectively reminds us, today’s river people, to “trust the current. Hold fast to one another.”
Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit-based writed and activist. He is co-editor with Karen Aguilar-San Juan of ‘The People Make the Peace–Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement’. Joyce is also a participating member of the Riverwise Collective.