DETROIT – Juneteenth commemorates the announcement of emancipation of enslaved people in Texas on June 19,1865.
This history is closely tied to the Underground Railroad.
With all the new construction happening in downtown Detroit you might not realize how many historical sites there are within a few blocks of one another.
Our Juneteenth journey starts at the Skillman Library seen in the video player above.
“Every time I go by something like this, I see Thornton and Rutha Blackburn,” said Sharon Sexton, Michigan Underground Railroad Exploratory Collective.
In 1833, a self-emancipated Black couple in Detroit brought the fight for freedom to the forefront.
“Lucy and Thornton were here in the jail to be taken back to Kentucky where they had been enslaved, and members of the community concocted a plan to make that not happen,” said Barbra K Smith, Michigan Underground Railroad Exploratory Collective. “They escaped.”
Long before the Skillman Library was at the corner of Gratiot and Library, seen in the video player above was the site of the city’s jail.
At a time when bounty hunters were capturing Black people, forcing them to return to the south, abolitionists were fighting back.
“There was a group of people who said that will not happen, and their names aren’t even in history, but they’re the ones who made it happen,” Sexton said.
The sheriff was shot and injured during the uprising, allowing the Thornton’s to escape successfully.
“Yes, I’m proud of them,” Sexton said. “I’m even prouder of the Black citizens in Detroit who stood in front of them to make sure they didn’t get sent back into slavery.”
Much of the work to free enslaved people unfolded in the spot seen in the video player above.
“They organized Benevolence Societies, Civil Rights Committees, and Vigilance Committees as well,” said Yolanda Jack, Wright Museum.
“I know where the original walls are, and I go in every day and touch a wall and knowing that wall had been touched 160 years ago by an ancestor who did freedom, so that connects me,” Sexton said.
“The significance of the men and women who did that work, and the men and women who they helped free, that wasn’t outside of my scope,” Smith said. “It was right here. If I was living at that time, I could be here.”
As we walked to the third site in Capital Park, they reflected on the journey to this point.
“We’re walking in their footprints, feeling their spirit,” Jack said. “And the sacrifices that our ancestors made, many didn’t make it because they sacrificed their bloodshed for us.”
A few blocks away at Capital Park is a lesson in logistics.
“The slave hunters or the people looking for them would be in the hotel drinking and having a party meanwhile at the barn, which was away, so you didn’t have the smell, were the people they were looking for,” Sexton said.
The plan was to keep bounty hunters entertained at the Franklin House while hiding Black people at the Finney Barn until they could escape.
“It makes me feel like we did so much at one time against all of the odds,” Sexton said. “But we still haven’t gotten there yet.”
“You need to be proud because you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your ancestors,” Smith said. “They made a way for you, so be proud, know your story and history. And this is a part of it.”