Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1886: Black abolitionist shares Underground Railroad strategy

By: - January 17, 2022 5:55 am

Laina G. Stebbins graphic

On Jan. 17, 1886, Black abolitionist William Lambert revealed that he was part of a secret order called, “African American Mysteries: Order of the Men of Oppression.”  He made the declaration in a Detroit Tribune newspaper article.

Lambert and others used codes, passwords and secret handshakes to help slaves gain freedom along the Underground Railroad, the Detroit tailor said. 

“These and other abolitionist efforts, by both groups and individuals, assisted thousands of fugitives on their travels on the Underground Railroad in Michigan,” according to the Detroit Historical Society. 

William Lambert | Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The “railroad” was a multi-state network of men and women, Blacks and whites African American who offered shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from Southern states like Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, ending slavery in America. 

Born in Trenton, N.J, Lambert was 21 when he arrived in Detroit in 1838. As a leader in the Underground Railroad movement, Lambert assisted in the escapes of Thornton and Rutha Blackburn in 1833. They were slaves from Kentucky.

In 1837, Lambert helped to form the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society. It included prominent Black abolitionists Robert Banks, and Madison Lightfoot as well as prominent whites Edwin Cowles, Robert Steward and Shubael Conant.

In 1840, Lambert addressed the Michigan Legislature and challenged the body to amend the state constitution to allow for African Americans to be given full citizenship. 

Three years later, Lambert also participated in a two-day Negro Suffrage Convention which was held at Second Baptist Church, Michigan’s first Black church congregation located in Detroit. There, 23 delegates discussed and planned a strategy to win voting rights and sustainable employment for African Americans.

A resolution adopted by the assembly read as follows:

“Whereas we find ourselves existing in this state, with no marks of criminality attached to our names as a class — no spots of disloyalty dishonoring our birthright; and whereas, we yet find ourselves the subjects and not the objects of legislation, because we are prevented from giving an assenting or opposing voice in the periodic appointments of those who rule us.”

Lambert died in 1890 at age 71.

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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.