University of Michigan professor says Detroit's early history 'mired in a slave past’

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Detroit, Tiya Miles



A University of Michigan professor and author of books on race and slavery stressed that racism and white supremacy are not restricted to the South in an op-ed piece for the New York Times.

Tiya Miles, a professor of American culture and history at UM and the author of the forthcoming book "The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits," penned the opinion piece in the context of the recent removal of Confederate monuments in several cities, including a number in the south.

Miles noted that she believes the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, Baltimore and Charlottesville, Va., was "necessary and urgent," but that the history of racism in the United States is extensive throughout the country.

Miles, whose research includes 19th century African American and Native American interrelated and comparative histories, specifically mentioned Detroit's founding fathers as a case in point.

"Detroit's legacy is one of a 'free' city, a final stop on the Underground Railroad before Canada, known by the code word 'Midnight,'" Miles wrote. "Yet its early history is mired in a slave past. Near the start of the Revolutionary War, William and Alexander Macomb, Scots-Irish traders from New York, illegally purchased Grosse Isle from the Potawatomi people. William Macomb was the largest slaveholder in Detroit in the late 1700s. He owned at least 26 black men, women and children. He kept slaves on his Detroit River islands, which included Belle Isle (the current city park) and Grosse Isle, and right in the heart of the city, not far from where the International Underground Railroad Memorial now rises above the river view."

Miles goes on to note that Belle Isle is named for Isabelle Cass, whose father Lewis Cass, the former Governor of Michigan, was a supporter of slavery. He negotiated the sale of a woman he had enslaved to a member of the Macomb family in 1818, according to his biographer Willard Car Klunder.

Miles released her debut novel "The Cherokee Rose," in 2015, and was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her work on African American and Native American history in 2011.




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