Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1863: Emancipation Proclamation celebration held in Detroit 

By: - January 6, 2022 8:43 am

Vice President Lyndon Johnson at Second Baptist Church in 1963 | Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

On Jan. 6, 1863, a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation took place at Second Baptist Church in Detroit, the first African-American congregation established in Michigan.

It included “speeches by white and black Negroes,” according to Detroit Free Press reporting. 

Some sang: 

“Old Abe Lincoln is the man for me,

Old Abe Lincoln is the man for me,

Old Abe Lincoln is the man for all,

He can whip Jeff Davis and Old Stonewall.” 

Second Baptist Church in Detroit | Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The event occurred after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1 as the nation approached its third year of civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

The city’s population in 1860 was 45,619, only 1,402 of whom were African American, according to public records. Up to this point, Detroit had an important site on the Underground Railroad, a system of travel where local people aided the passage of fugitive slaves to freedom from Southern states like Kentucky, the Carolinas and Tennessee. 

Because Detroit was located just North of Windsor, Ontario, where slavery was abolished in 1834, the Motor City was a popular destination for Blacks seeking freedom. Although Michigan was a free territory, some refugee slaves wanted to go over the border to Canada to prevent being captured by slavecatchers. 

Others settled in Detroit. For example, Elijah McCoy, the inventor and engineer who was noted for 57 U.S. patents, was born in Canada in 1844 but later lived in Ypsilanti and Detroit. His parents were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky. 

Two months after the Detroit Emancipation Proclamation celebration, a race riot rocked the city. A set of disturbances were reported by the Detroit Free Press as “the bloodiest day that ever dawned upon Detroit.” The spark that sets off the conflagration was unrest related to racism and the military draft, as Blacks had been serving on the Union side. At the end of the day, at least two innocent people were dead and dozens were beaten, most of whom were African American. 

One account alleged that an angry white mob attacked a home where African-American women and children were present, propelling Black men to react with vengeance. The tragic event resulted in the creation of a full-time police force in Detroit. 

One hundred years later, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Michigan Gov. George Romney attended a dedication ceremony where a Michigan historic marker is placed to remember the event.

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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.