Monuments to Detroit area’s past seen in new, troubling light: Slavery

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — A throng of protesters cheered this week while someone climbed a downtown statue of a heroic major general and slipped a plastic bag and a noose over its head. By then, the bust of Christopher Columbus near the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel was already wearing a sign of shame.

The inspiration was sparked in Minnesota last month. But the root cause, as it remains for so many things, was slavery — and not on the plantations of Mississippi or a Caribbean island decimated by an Italian explorer.

A demonstrator wraps a rope over the head of a statue of Alexander Macomb on Washington Blvd. during a march through downtown Detroit, June 14, 2020 to protest racism, police brutality, and the death of George Floyd.

It was slavery here, in Detroit, in the supposedly pristine North, where the Spirit of Detroit stands across Woodward Avenue from the spot where dark-skinned people used to be publicly whipped.

Throughout the city's first 120 years, Detroiters owned human beings. It's an unsavory and largely unknown piece of the past, tied to some of the region's most prominent and prosperous citizens.

What to do about that history — and the names behind it — has not yet become the fierce battleground that it's been throughout the South, where monuments have come crashing to the pavement while onlookers erupt in either glee or fury. But Columbus was whisked into storage Monday, and the issue is on the march.

The statues and other remnants are wildly insulting, goes one argument. They're valuable pieces of art and history, goes another. They're both, says a third, and they need to be preserved, but with careful annotation and context.

Throughout Metro Detroit, slaveholders' names are immortalized on roads, schools and businesses. Some of their images are preserved in bronze or marble. Cass, Macomb, Livernois. Groesbeck and Dequindre, Woodward and Woodbridge. Beaubien, Brush, Beaufait.

Detroiter India Doggan, 33, says she's "50-50" on the idea of removing statuary and other landmarks connected to the city's slaveholding past. She took note of the downtown statue of Alexander Macomb as she was out for a walk with her husband and children Sanchez Shelton, 12, and Sophia Littleton-Bey, 6.

Now comes a new name, unheard until a man in Minneapolis died gasping on May 25 with a police officer's knee on his neck: George Floyd. Now people are marching, #BlackLivesMatter is once again trending and NASCAR has banned Confederate flags.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, protesters pulled down a statue of Columbus, bold sailor and bloodthirsty despot. In Jacksonville, Florida, a crane yanked a Confederate soldier from the top of a six-story monument. In Richmond, Virginia, Jefferson Davis fell from grace on Monument Avenue.

In Detroit last week, someone draped a red-on-white placard around the neck of Columbus: "Looter. Rapist. Slave trader."

That was the same day a city spokesman said he'd heard no inquiries about removing signs and statues — and Shawn Vaughn, an organizer for one of a series of protests in Detroit, said she hoped no one would need to ask.

"Those things should be changed," said Vaughn of the activist group By Any Means Necessary. But as shown elsewhere, "they can be changed without us having to demand it."

As Vaughn sat amid megaphones at the small plaza next to police headquarters, India Doggan of Detroit was strolling with her family a few blocks away on Washington Boulevard. On a warm, breezy late afternoon, they paused to look at the statue of Alexander Macomb.

The inscription notes, with the century-old formality that makes a U look like a V, that Maj. Gen. Macomb was a War of 1812 hero at the Battle of Plattsbvrgh. It says the statue was erected in 1906 by the Daughters of 1812.

It does not say that Macomb County was named for him, that the statue was crafted from melted cannons — or that he's been accused by protesters, quite likely unfairly, of owning slaves.

Dan Austin, creator of, said Macomb was not a slaveholder, though his father and uncle were. Kyle Alexander de Beausset of Grosse Ile, Macomb's fourth great-grandson, has suggested the statue is a roadblock to understanding the region's full history and should be moved — but his research likewise turns up no slave ownership.

A passer-by told Doggan, 33, otherwise, and her response was immediate.

"Take it down," she said, but just as quickly, she reconsidered: "I'm probably 50-50. If we hadn't walked past, we wouldn't know."

A demonstrator celebrates after wrapping a bag over the head of a statue of Alexander Macomb on Washington Blvd. during a march through downtown Detroit, June 14, 2020 to protest racism, police brutality, and the death of George Floyd.

History of slavery

Macomb's uncle, William, was once the wealthiest man in Detroit. He owned Grosse Ile, Belle Isle and 26 people. When he died in 1796, he deeded them to his loving wife.

The French brought slavery to the city that began in 1701 as an outpost for trading fur. The British continued the practice, sometimes bringing slaves with them as they relocated from the east. When the United States took control, a fluid process that began in the late 18th century, Americans rented slaves or married into slaveholding families and the institution carried on.

Harvard history professor and 2011 MacArthur Fellow Tiya Miles, formerly with the University of Michigan, wrote a book on the subject, "The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits."

The early slaves, she found, were Native American, with the women often essentially concubines. A tiny fraction of blacks "surged during and after the Revolutionary War due to their capture in raids," she said. "As more blacks became available for elite Detroiters to acquire, more blacks were possessed in and around the city."

Overall, she said, the ratio of Native Americans to African Americans was probably 3 to 1. According to senior curator Joel Stone of the Detroit Historical Society, slavery along the strait also differed from the South in tasks and numbers.

Even as large plantations existed in Ontario and near Monroe, he said, most Detroit slaveholders kept only a few, and indentured servants were also part of the mix. The slaves were as likely to be maids or store clerks as field hands, but they were slaves nonetheless.

As Miles has written, the theft of their knowledge, skills, bodies and freedom "made the city we know today possible."

Detroit was ultimately an important station on the Underground Railroad but also a place where hope died. While some estimates are higher, Miles' team of researchers found 73 slaves in Detroit in 1773, when the population was about 1,400. Nine years later, there were 170. Thirteen years after that, there were nearly 300.

The Jay Treaty between the U.S. and England in 1795 prohibited the sale of slaves, but it ignored the population already held in Detroit. A decade later, working-class abolitionists were paying attention.

A group of them harassed a British lawyer who had come to Detroit in 1807 to collect escaped blacks from Canada, where slavery remained legal until 1833. The same band of carpenters, navigators and barkeeps, Miles said, "also threatened Detroit judge Augustus Woodward with a tarring and feathering should he try to return the fugitives."

Woodward, who had been a slave owner, ruled for the escapees, but it's not as though slavery slunk away. A letter from Detroit merchant John R. Williams outlining a business deal in 1817 requested payment including a "boy and girl ... of good moral habits and tractable disposition."

Seven years after that, Williams became Detroit's first elected mayor. He was so popular that John R Street is named for him — and legend says Williams Street is, too.

BAMN organizer Shawn Vaughn, 28, of Detroit, center, marches and raises her fist with protesters against police brutality in Detroit on June 11, 2020. This is the 14th consecutive day of protests.

What to do?

Lewis Cass' last name appears on one Michigan county, two cities, a lake, a river, a government office building in Lansing and a cliff on Mackinac Island. In Detroit, it's part of an avenue and the renowned Cass Tech High School. His marble likeness stands in the U.S. Capitol.

He was the governor of Michigan Territory, a senator, an ambassador, a presidential candidate, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State.

He owned at least one slave, campaigned against national abolition, coerced indigenous tribes in Michigan to give up their land, and helped engineer the torturous forced relocation of Native Americans known as the Trail of Tears.

"The Indians are impelled to war by passions," he wrote. "They have not only no principles of religion or morality to repress their passions, but they are urged forward in their career of blood by all around them."

So: What to do with him now? What to do with Columbus, Macomb and the slaveholders whose names continue to pop up on Waze and MapQuest?

Names can be changed, said Vaughn, the activist. She went to Thurgood Marshall Elementary, which used to be George Custer Elementary, and she drives down Rosa Parks Boulevard, which used to be 12th Street. If alterations can come because someone is laudable, they can come because someone is deemed deplorable.

"Lewis Cass was actually a racist," said Vaughn, which by today's standards is undeniable.

But consider, said the Detroit Historical Society's Stone: "When he was writing that stuff, he was one of the best and brightest."

"I don't like Lewis Cass to begin with," Stone emphasized. Politics aside, he was by most accounts thoroughly unpleasant.

But much as his positions were signs of a time, so were the honors, during and after his life. Thoroughfares like Cass Avenue "reflect our history. Who we are, what we did."

Then again, Stone said, if streets and statues are reflections of what America was, "removing them is a reflection of what we are now."

Detroit historian and writer Ken Coleman is inclined to keep landmarks, he said, which sometimes surprises people — an African American, coming down on the side of someone like the late Orville Hubbard, or at least on using him as an example.

Hubbard, a notorious and forthright bigot, was the mayor of Dearborn from 1942-78. His statue was shunted from in front of city hall to the local historical museum in 2015, and was recently reclaimed by his family.

"To take a monument down is to sweep it under the rug," Coleman said. It's not as though a plaque on a pedestal is the only place to find information, but a statue can make you look, and ideally think.

Whether the figure is Stonewall Jackson or a mayor who all but walled off a suburb, he said, "there needs to be a display that provides a complete picture. Why was this here, and why is this important?"

Protesters march against police brutality on Larned Street in Detroit on June 11, 2020. This is the 14th consecutive day of protests.

The problem, said Wayne State associate professor David Goldberg, is that explanatory counterbalances tend to exist only in theory.

Without them, markers "lionize people without a critical lens," said Goldberg, who teaches in the African American Studies department.

Many of the bronze Confederate generals were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of a deliberate campaign to sanitize the Civil War, downplaying the role of slavery and emphasizing the insurrection as a noble cause. Others were cast later as a response to the early days of the Civil Rights movement.

Most monuments to Columbus were commissioned before his barbarism was widely known, when schools blithely taught that he discovered America. His bust downtown, Stone said, was part of harmless ethnic jousting; Germans in Detroit honored poet and playwright Johann Schiller on Belle Isle in 1908, and Italians responded with their favorite explorer.

"White supremacy thrives on historical amnesia and myth-making," Goldberg said. "These statues, as presented, serve this purpose, whether willfully or not."

The Columbus statue should be banished on principle, he said. Alexander Macomb would best be replaced by an abolitionist like William Lambert. And as long as change is afoot, he'd like to see a new name for his university: Revolutionary War and Northwest Indian War Gen. Anthony Wayne "was a genocidal lunatic."

Museums are often a better place than sidewalks for historical analysis, Miles said. To her, for example, "Cass is not a figure to be venerated; however, he is a figure to be remembered."

Whatever happens, she said, the decisions should be made locally and publicly.

"I will note," she said, "that protesters are members of the public" — and they have already begun to make their voices heard.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn