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On this day in 1837: Detroit abolitionists form advocacy group 

By: - April 26, 2022 2:18 am

Conant Gardens Michigan Historical Marker in Detroit. The neighborhood was named after Detroit Anti-Slavery Society founding president Shubael Conant | Ken Coleman

On April 26, 1837, the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society was created. 

Some of its founders, both Blacks and white, had participated in Underground Railroad operations, the secret system of transportation routes that assisted slaves from the American South to freedom in northern states like Michigan and portions of Canada.  

The group included prominent Black abolitionists Robert Banks, William Lambert and Madison Lightfoot, as well as white activists Edwin Cowles, Robert Steward and Shubael Conant, according to the Detroit Historical Society. The Society not only demanded the abolition of slavery but also focused attention on “the elevation of our colored brethren to their proper rank as men.” It was created the same year Michigan joined the Union and its Constitution banned the institution of slavery.

The Detroit group, however, was not Michigan’s first organization dedicated to abolishing the institution. A similar group was founded in Adrian in 1832 and formed by members of the Quaker belief system. One of them was Elizabeth Chandler who penned an anti-slavery poem, “The Slave Ship.” Another organization, the Michigan Antislavery Society, was founded in Ann Arbor at First Presbyterian Church on Nov. 10, 1836.

The Detroit Anti-Slavery Society helped to advocate on the political landscape. In 1855, the Michigan Legislature passed a Personal Liberty Act. The measure made it difficult for slave catchers to kidnap formerly enslaved people in the state. 

Lambert, a Detroit tailor, had become secretary of the first state convention of African Americans in 1843. There, he argued that the word “white” be taken out of the Michigan Constitution. As a leader in the Underground Railroad movement, Lambert assisted in the escapes of Thornton and Rutha (sometimes referred to as Lucie) Blackburn in 1833; and Robert Cromwell in 1847, who were all slaves.

A Michigan Historical Marker was erected to commemorate his contribution to society. 

Conant, the Society’s founding president, was a white fur trader from New England who arrived in Detroit in 1805 only two years after the creation of the Michigan Territory. He traded with indigenous people in the territory’s Northern lakes and on Mackinac Island. 

He also became a significant landowner in Detroit. In fact, a section of the city’s northeast side was later named after him and called Conant Gardens. Because Conant refused to go along with conventional language in city deeds that forbade Blacks from owning land, the section became an enclave for Blacks as early as the 1920s. 

Conant died in 1867 and Lambert died in 1890. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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