DETROIT – A vacant lot near the Coleman A. Young Community Center on Detroit’s east side was once a training ground for Black men during the Civil War.
The 102nd United States Colored Infantry Regiment were stationed at Camp Ward before they left for Maryland.
Conditions at Camp Ward were dismal. It was a handful of barracks that leaked when it rained and weren’t insulated from the cold, but what happened contributed to what followed after the Union Army won the Civil War.
“Juneteenth is the aftermath,” said historian Dale Rich. “The hard work that these soldiers did? Had it not been for them, I don’t think we would have won.”
In 1863, more than 800 Black men trained at Camp Ward.
“This ground is proof that this is where they trained,” said Sharon Sexton, with the Michigan Underground Railroad Exploratory Collective. “And it’s just so much part of our history that has been left out in the history books.”
The 102nd United States Colored Infantry underwent basic military training at Camp Ward -- practicing drills and learning how to shoot.
“The call was answered by those guys who came here and fought,” Rich said.
“Many of the people who even came here to train had come through the Underground Railroad as passengers,” Sexton said.
More than 200 Canadians, Black men who had escaped slavery, returned to join the 102nd -- the most Canadians to join a single regiment.
“You have men that are repatriated come back here and risk being arrested because they would come treasonous coming back here to fight to save their people that they left,” Rich said.
During the American Civil War, more than 209,000 Black men fought for the Union Army.
“When they were fighting for the Union, if they had been captured, they could have been sold into slavery,” Sexton said. “They could have been killed right on the spot, so the risk definitely was far greater.”
“Without our delegation, combined with all the other Black men who fought, they won the war because they wanted freedom,” Rich said.
“So many people don’t think that Black people did anything in the Civil War and these men actually went into battle,” Sexton said. “They really were doing something for their own freedom.”
Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army won the Civil War, and on June 19 -- now known as Juneteenth -- federal troops arrived in Texas to ensure all enslaved people were freed.
“What happened here definitely had an impact in Texas because the troops were Black,” Sexton said. “They had a united front, dealing with the freedom and the fact that they all participated in the fight, meant that they were free.”
“We have 18 men that were here that are buried over there in the cemetery just a block away,” Rich said. “I visit this all the time and so it’s a part of me.”
“Even though it looks like an empty field now, this is pride. This is where the men came and this is where they started their training,” Sexton said. “This is where the people from Detroit came to watch them. I’m proud.”
A lot of people in Detroit who were a part of the Underground Railroad supported the troops with food and supplies. About 130 men died -- not from battle, but from disease.