This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.
The intersection of Brush and Macomb streets in Detroit’s Greektown looks like a lot of corners in the city. Trash freckles the sidewalk. There are only a handful of cars—two Fords, one Chevy—parked on the road. The top floors of both the Greektown Casino and GM’s headquarters are visible in the distance, the GM’s Renaissance Center a sleek silver cylinder, the casino’s windows a range of darker blues like the river at night. You can see a century of history on that street corner, but any obvious hint of the place Detroit used to be before the car makers came—when the city was a French outpost, and later an American territory—is gone.
For example, where a pay-by-the-hour parking lot sits now, there once was a house that belonged to a woman named Elizabeth Denison Forth in the early 19th century. Forth was born a slave, obtained her freedom by running away with her family to Canada, and returned to Michigan, where she built a career as a local businesswoman. But her story and the story of other African American and Native American slaves isn’t widely known to Detroit residents or visitors and goes unremembered in the monuments and memorial markers in the city. Professor Tiya Miles—professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, American Culture, and History—is working with a team of LSA students on a project that aims to change that.
“I am one of those people who really feels like history is critical to how we think about ourselves as individuals, as members of a global society,” Miles says. “We develop a sense of who we are and where we’re headed based on our past, and if there are huge gaps in our knowledge of the past, I think we’re going to carry those gaps forward into how we think of ourselves or try to solve problems for the future.”
While researching Michigan abolitionism in 2010 as a fellow in LSA’s Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, Miles discovered that while slavery was made illegal in Michigan directly prior to the Civil War, the territory permitted slavery in some cases before then. Miles decided to partner with Michigan’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), which pairs first- and second-year students with faculty for mentoring and research, on a project that would gather information about slavery in Detroit and then share that research.
“I didn’t know what we would do with the material at first,” Miles says, “but I wanted to make sure that it was the kind of project that would allow students to do field research and take ownership of the material and share it with a broader public.”
Beginning in 2012, the team—consisting of four undergraduate researchers, two graduate students, and Miles—worked together to find and transcribe a series of documents from the time period to learn more about the lives of slaves and slaveowners in Detroit.
Details from the documents are chilling. The will for William Macomb, head of one of the largest slave-owning families of the time, lists slaves alongside items that Macomb intended to bequeath to his wife such as “cattle, household furniture, books, plate, linen, carriages and all my utensils of husbandry.” The Macomb family’s financial ledger includes a list of estimated prices for slaves on the property, including prices for a nine-year- old girl named Betta ($50) and a seven-year-old named Phillis ($40).
Miles (center) and undergraduate Kaisha Brezina (left) and graduate student Emily Macgillivray (right) searching for the location of Elizabeth Denison Forth’s home during the team's walking tour of Detroit.
Some stories that came out of the team’s research were more heartening than harrowing. One narrative that emerged was the story of the Denison family. The Denisons were slaves belonging to the Tucker family until that family’s patriarch died, and the Denison family was split apart. The parents—Hannah and Peter—went to live with Elijah Brush, a wealthy lawyer, while Hannah and Peter’s four children—including Elizabeth Denison, later Elizabeth Denison Forth—remained with the Tuckers.
After a year, Peter and Hannah became free, and sued for the freedom of their children. After Judge Augustus Woodward sided with the Tuckers, the Denisons escaped to Canada, and though they returned to Detroit later, none of the family members were ever claimed as slaves again. Elizabeth Denison grew up, got married, and became a businesswoman, earning enough to buy property in the city. She even became a cook of some renown in Detroit and, during a brief trip abroad with the family she cooked for, in Paris.
While stories like the Denisons’ were an essential part of Miles’s project, her team also worked as a group to solve research problems and make critical decisions about the direction of the endeavor. They decided together, for example, that they wanted to take their research and make a website that would link their work with real locations in Detroit.
“Making a website is an immediate way to share what you find and to get feedback,” Miles says. “From the beginning, we thought we would do something online, but we didn’t know what it would consist of. At some point we thought it was going to be transcribed documents, but I don’t think that would have been quite as exciting as what we ended up with.”
What the team ended up with was mappingdetroitslavery.com, a website —designed by LSA alumna Ariela Steif (’10)—that includes a description of the project, graphs showing census data on slave populations, and an interactive map featuring 11 sites related to the team’s research—including churches, farms, and houses. Because many of the places were so close to each other, the team did a walking tour of downtown Detroit, seeing firsthand the places where slaves lived, worked, and worshipped.
Very little of Detroit’s pre-20th century history has been preserved, leading to odd juxtapositions like this United Way torch burning on the spot where a public whipping post used to stand.
As with Elizabeth Denison Forth’s house in present-day Greektown, though, not much remains of early Detroit. A Courtyard Marriott stands where former territorial Governor William Hull once lived. The Spirit of Detroit statue sits across the street from where a public whipping post once stood. While the students were able to overlay what they knew about early Detroit with what they saw, not much remains of the world the Denisons lived in.
And while the Macomb family has a street—and a Michigan county—bearing its name, and Judge Woodward’s surname adorns one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares, the history of slavery in Michigan has largely been forgotten, creating a specific kind of amnesia that Miles and her team’s website is dedicated to correcting.
Miles believes that hearing these stories can lead to personal transformation for people reading and learning about slavery in Detroit, and that it can also lead to bigger changes where “people take what they’ve learned and feed that into positive community building.” She credits her students with the project’s success.
“I would have had such a different project if I hadn’t been working with them,” Miles says. “Seeing things through their eyes and going through the process of teaching them how to do research really reorients the project for you, the researcher. There’s such a huge benefit to that.”