Frederick Douglass, John Brown and George DeBaptiste

Lately I’ve been falling asleep dreaming about Michigan Historical Markers. Is it just me, or are they really sort of gorgeous? Those heavy green tablets with their shimmery gold letters!  (DESIGN FREAKS: What’s that typeface? I love it.) And where do they come from? Who sponsors them and moreover, if you decide you want to make a Historical Marker happen, what’s your recourse? What do you do?

So, in the few spare moments I’ve had to give myself crazy ideas, I’ve been learning about it. It actually seems like a pretty straightforward and accessible process if you don’t mind your research and documentation (and fundraising, if you’re not the type that has a few grand to drop on historical passions).

The Michigan Historical Commission also keeps a list of missing historical markers. (Among them: Tiger Stadium.)

And then when I was browsing Historical Markers in Detroit, I learned about this marker.

Two-hundred feet north of this historical marker (right in the middle of a grassy knoll on the University of Detroit-Mercy campus), the home of William Webb once stood. And in William Webb’s home, on  March 12, 1859, Frederick Douglass and John Brown met and, with an audience of some Detroit abolitionists, discussed how to end slavery.

Frederick Douglass and John Brown had met before, and all of their public discourse made it completely clear that they would never, ever agree on the issue of violence: Frederick Douglass was absolutely not interested, preferring instead to pursue political means, and John Brown (who, by this time, was deep into his long-beard crazy-eyed days) was convinced that no solution would ever come about without extreme measures.

It was 10 months before John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, as he was on what would be his final force-gathering tour through the Northeastern states before arriving in West Virginia in July. John Brown was executed for murder, conspiring to incite slave rebellion and treason against Virginia on December 2, 1859.

Douglass and John Brown met again in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1859, where John Brown gave Douglass one more chance to take up arms. Wrote Douglass in his autobiography:

In parting he put his arms around me in a manner more than friendly, and said: “Come with me, Douglass; I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose. When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.” But my discretion or my cowardice made me proof against the dear old man’s eloquence — perhaps it was something of both which determined my course.

The Brown/Douglass marker is on East Congress Street between Chrysler Drive and St. Antoine (which is a one-way street. BE FOREWARNED. I did not realize this and I parked on this street, at a meter, the wrong way. Like a creep).

Just around the corner at Larned and Beaubien is a marker on the spot where George DeBaptiste’s house used to be.  DeBaptiste was a prominent member of Detroit’s pre-Civil War black community, and he was at William Webb’s house the night that Frederick Douglass and John Brown once again came to a stalemate on abolition and violence.

A barber, a Mason, a leader of Detroit’s underground railroad, organizer of Michigan’s First Colored Regiment during the Civil War, bakery proprietor, once-owner of the steamer T. Whitney (he had to hire a Captain because black men weren’t legally allowed to operate boats) and, uh, personal valet to President William Henry Harrison.

So basically, George DeBaptiste … was kind of the best.

Here’s a lyrical passage from his obituary in the Detroit Tribune, February 23, 1875:

He used to say that he had often waited on the bank of the Ohio River for half the night, while the rain was pouring down, intently listening to hear the oars of an expected boat, which contained one or more fugitive slaves. It was his custom to pilot these fugitives some ten or twelve miles north to the house of a farmer, who kept them secreted during the day, and on the next night would send them on to another stopping place. This method of travel was kept up until they arrived at Detroit, when they were taken across to Windsor. Mr. De Baptiste would usually perform these journeys on foot, walking sometimes twenty miles during the night, returning to his work the next day, probably to shave the man whose slave he assisted to escape the previous night.

Both the Frederick Douglass/John Brown marker and the George DeBaptiste marker are part of a circuit of Underground Railroad stops in and around Detroit. You can find a few guided tours (through the Wheelhouse, for instance) or cobble one together yourself with the help of a handy resource like this one.

Meanwhile, we’re keeping George DeBaptiste near the top of the heaping pile of “stuff we really want to know more about.” So stay tuned.

#chapoton house detroit#detroit historical markers#detroit underground railroad#frederick douglass#frederick douglass john brown detroit#george de baptiste#john brown#michigan historical markers


  1. Louis DeCaro Jr - June 9, 2010 @ 7:08 am

    Thank you for your photos of the Detroit landmark signs relating to the John Brown story. However, as a Brown biographer, I respectfully differ with you as to some of your commentary.

    First, the expression, “deep into his long beard, crazy-eyed days” is pretty much fluff, as if to portray someone who had freaked out. The long beard, which Brown kept from about 1858 until he moved to Maryland in the summer of 1859, was a bona fide disguise because he was wanted/tracked by federal marshals and other agents of slavery. Recent forensic studies also show that Brown had probably suffered with Bell’s Palsy (or perhaps a slight stroke), along with the Ague, a prairie malaria. He may have grown his long beard as a cosmetic device, for he kept the beard/mustache even when he cropped it in June 1859 (and kept it cropped at the time of the raid in Oct. 1859).

    Secondly, Brown had no crazy eyes, nor was he insane, and there is nothing but historical gossip and presumption underlying that notion. It is true that Brown could get upset over slavery, but the real issue is why did more white people not get that upset when the impact of sheer racist slavery was all around them? Activists are typically characterized this way by people who either do not understand or who are indifferent to struggles of justice. I suspect you are just repeating what you’ve been told. No one who knew Brown assented to or agreed with the “insanity” charge, especially Douglass.

    More to the point of Detroit, historians have accepted Douglass’s autobiographical account of his friendship and conflicts with Brown, but have done so uncritically. But a critical study (such as is reflected by the late Benjamin Quarles) suggests that Douglass conflated events of 1859. In fact, Douglass and Brown did not disagree as to the use of force (you call it violence); what Douglass did not like was Brown’s later addition of the plan to enter and seize Harper’s Ferry en route to the South. Douglass completely embraced Brown’s original plan to lead off and arm slaves and so equip them to do the same throughout the South. This was a plan that Brown and Douglass had discussed from the late 1840s, and there is good evidence that Douglass had promised to support Brown when he struck.

    When Brown met Douglass and other black leaders from Detroit and Chatham, Ontario in March 1859, the occasion surrounded Brown having just put a group of 12 fugitives on a ferry to Canada after smuggling them by wagon and railroad from Missouri over a period of several months. Douglass was speaking in Detroit and the meeting was arranged at the Webb home. At this meeting, the extremist in the group was DeBaptiste, who wanted to use “terrorism” (to use a modern term) in the South by blowing up white churches (presumable with white people in them). Brown and Douglass, along with others in the meeting did not approve of the DeBaptiste proposal. However the real conflict was between Brown and Douglass, because (and this is where Douglass fails to tell the whole story) it is likely that there, in Detroit, Brown proposed the seizing of Harper’s Ferry (not later in the year as Douglass wrote). There is local history that states that Brown went hard on Douglass, probably to the point of offense. Of course Douglass could defend himself and could not be strong-armed by the imperious Old Man; on the other hand, Douglass was backing off from his earlier promises to help Brown. Remember that by 1859, Douglass was almost a celebrity and the foremost leader of black America. Why should he risk all that by throwing in with Brown, particularly when he was intent on seizing a government armory?

    The interplay between Douglass and Brown continued throughout 1859–Brown tried to make nice with Douglass, and they were friends after all. But even when they patched up their personal relationship, Douglass would not budge and Brown kept hoping until the end that his friend Douglass would come through. But Douglass consistently presented the proverbial half-glass full/empty kind of support to Brown. The epitome of his support was bringing Shields Green as a possible recruit for Brown to enlist, but then being disappointed when Green decided to actually join Brown. We should assume that Douglass tried to talk him out of it.

    I could go on, but you can read my book, John Brown–The Cost of Freedom. I hope this helps as background. Keep up the nice work. Thanks for the DeBaptiste obituary quote. I agree that he’s a guy that deserves more attention.

  2. Betty DeRamus - June 9, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    You have to start in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to understand why George DeBaptiste was both ready and able to embrace a life that kept him up all night, roaming the banks of rivers, and up all day, making the money that fueled his activities. The family patriarch was John DeBaptiste, George’s grandfather. He was literate in French and English and had migrated to the Fredericksburg region from St. Kitts at the end of the French and Indian War. He was one of seven known black Fredericksburg Revolutionary War veterans. He set the pace for his family, leaving large tracks for all of them to follow. He built a warehouse and a wharf in Fredericksburg and shipped goods on the Atlantic coastline and into the Caribbean. His wharf area is still known as French John’s Wharf.
    After his death in 1804, John DeBaptiste’s eldest son, Benjamin, formed the firm of Benjamin DeBaptiste and Brothers, probably the leading business in Fredericksburg between 1804 and 1830. The DeBaptistes owned boats that shipped cargoes to Haiti and the West Indies. However, even for this prosperous and proud free black clan, Virginia bristled with traps and snares.
    Many free black Virginians managed to stay in the state after they were ordered to leave in the early 19th century, but the nooses looped around their necks kept tightening. White people kept harassing and provoking George DeBaptiste’s father, George, and dragging him into court. He was charged with various offenses, including selling liquor without a license. Some of the charges, historian Ruth Coder Fitzgerald observed “seem to have been false.” Some free blacks bought their own relatives as slaves to keep them from being sold away from their families. DeBaptiste’s father actually owned his wife, Maria, whom he set free on March 12, 1823.
    The elder DeBaptiste was determined to pave a smoother road for his son by finding him a mentor who could teach him how to dodge or step around the kind of harassment that dogged him. One of young George’s mentors was Richmond society barber Lomax Smith who did more than teach the young man a trade. He also taught him how to keep on his mask while discussions about things like the hated Underground Railroad swirled around him. This was probably the most important survival lesson for a black man in the 19th century—knowing how to tell white men what they wanted to hear.
    DeBaptiste put this and his many other skills to good use when he became an Underground Railroad conductor in Madison Indiana, on the Mississippi and its tributary waters, at Cincinnati and in Detroit.

  3. Nathan Whitehead - June 9, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    State funding has been axed for the Historical Marker Program so they are now handled by grad students at EMU. From the Detroit News: EMU Rescues Michigan’s Historical Markers Program

  4. amy - June 13, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    One of the great joys of keeping this blog is hearing from people who genuinely know their stuff. My aim is to explore and share what’s amazing about early Detroit; I’m a curious person with some enthusiasm for the subject, some entry-level research skills and the time and excitement to write about it. But that does mean I sometimes delve into topics I don’t have a lot of experience with! And that’s where you great people come in.

    That having been said …

    LOUIS: You are right that my characterization of John Brown as long-bearded and crazy-eyed was flip, nor did I mean to imply that he was in fact insane. But anyone who’s seen a photograph of John Brown might be forgiven for thinking he looks a little wild. I don’t think he was insane; I do think that anyone who’s ready to fight and die for a cause with the fervor, devotion and righteousness of John Brown might fairly be characterized as a little crazed. No value judgment intended.

    But I’m really intrigued by your critical reading of Frederick Douglass and John Brown’s dynamic relationship. It makes sense that, however Frederick Douglass felt about insurrection, he might not be prepared to stake his reputation and career on a move so bold as Brown’s. In fact I think the quote I pulled from Douglass’s biography is tinged with some ambivalence about his reluctance to join Brown in the raid. I have read that Douglass thought it at least strategically foolish — that Brown was storming into a “perfect steel-trap” and would certainly face death.

    Finally, I’m glad you could lend some support to the theory that the Detroit meeting had some significance to Harpers Ferry; I scanned some early histories that claimed that Harpers Ferry had been plotted in Detroit, but thought that unlikely and couldn’t find any scholarly support for that in my brief research. It does make sense, though, that Brown might have revealed the plan to Douglass here, and I think that makes the marker in Detroit all the more necessary.

    BETTY: Thanks for the exhaustive background information on George DeBaptiste. I think we’ll definitely be hearing more him around these parts AND I think I’ll for sure be picking up a copy of your book. It’s biographies like these that really make the sweep of history come alive. St. Kitts to Fredericksburg to Madison, IN to Detroit? I’m floored.

    NATHAN: You caught me in a bad fit of not doing my homework! I knew that the Department of History, etc. was closed, and had read that EMU grad students would “help you write your summary” if your request for a historical marker were granted, but hadn’t put all of the pieces together. Thanks for sharing — I’m glad someone picked up the slack of the Markers program.

    Also, our friends at Perfect Laughter have been trying to figure out the typeface all week. They think it’s a 16th-century Venetian font, but they don’t know for sure, and have scolded me for making them worry about it. SORRY GUYS.

  5. Christina - June 15, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    Amy, I would never dream of scolding you for wondering about a typeface. These are the things that keep me up at night. I was briefly distracted by a screwdriver wielding car vandal, but I’m back on the case. I haven’t been able to find a typeface that matches exactly, so I’m going to list out the distinguishing characteristics. Maybe someone else will get it if I cut out some of the legwork.

    The lower case e’s have a diagonal crossbar (that’s why I think it’s Venetian/Humanist)
    The capital Js don’t extend below the baseline
    The middle of the capital M doesn’t reach the baseline
    The middle of the capital W extends all the way up and is flat on top
    The middle of the Os are on a slant
    And here’s the trick to figuring out the puzzle: the lower case g. It’s open at the bottom, not closed like an oval. I can’t find any typeface that has all of the above AND a lower case g that looks like that.

    Please, don’t get up. I’ll get the straightjacket for you.

  6. amy - June 15, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    Egads, screwdriver wielding? Terrifying.

    Maybe “scolding” was too harsh a word, but I definitely felt a little guilty for driving you to the brink on this one.

    I think I might get in touch with someone at the state level and see if they know the answer to this one. (We’re taking this dweeby question ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP!) But if you’d rather not have this answered the easy way, let me know and I’ll be sure to keep my mouth shut if I find out.

  7. Christina - June 15, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

    Go right ahead! Now I want to know what it is.

  8. Betty DeRamus - June 17, 2010 @ 7:54 am

    Using great restraint, I did not mention my books in my initial post. Since you brought them up, I will say that I’m the author of Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad and Freedom by Any Means: True Stories of Cunning and Courage on the Underground Railroad. Scholars will enjoy the lengthy bibliographies. General readers, I hope, will like the colorful narratives.

  9. Bill Miller - February 6, 2015 @ 6:36 am

    Hello Amy and forum. I am an admirer of John Brown. I am white and not insane but I have a strong feeling for African Americans as to how they were treated and still are being considered by many as a third class citizen. I can see how Brown getting caught up in his mission to free the slaves. I agree with most of what you have posted. I had always thought that the reason for the lack of black support at Harper’s Ferry was that they knew if captured that they would feared from torture unlike the white man if captured. You made a good point about Douglas’s lack of drive to help. The winners write the history books and John Brown and his men lost. I do think that he was the biggest reason for the Civil War. Many still want to hate the man. There are not any facts that Brown slaughtered whites but many want to believe that too. Keep up the good work. Bill

  10. Bill Miller - February 6, 2015 @ 6:40 am

    Back. I am hoping many of you could hook up with Allies For Freedom, Jean Libby a life long historian of John Brown and his family. She has traveled from California to Ohio, PA, New York, and almost all historical societies in Brown’s travels. Decades of studies. Thanks Bill

  11. Vida - October 7, 2016 @ 12:35 am

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  12. A.B. Massey - February 18, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    I live next to Canal Street Alley in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which I believe my friend Ruth Fitzgerald (now deceased) identified as French John’s Wharf. The Alley/Wharf area is owned by the City. I cannot identify who owned it when John DeBaptiste operated the Wharf, but my guess is Spotsylvania County, since the City had not yet annexed that area. Does anyone have details for me about the Fredericksburg connection not already mentioned above or in Ruth’s book. There is no marker identifying the Alley as the Wharf and no marker about John DeBaptiste’s connection to Fredericksburg, etc. That oversight needs to be corrected by the City. Any information you can give will be appreciated. Thanks.

  13. Jamon Andre Jordan - June 19, 2017 @ 8:53 pm

    The marker of the meeting between John Brown and Frederick Douglass at William Webb’s House is now missing.

  14. Jurgen Vsych - February 15, 2018 @ 4:00 pm

  15. Jamon Jordan - November 13, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    The marker of the William Webb House (meeting place of John Brown & Frederick Douglass) has now been replaced.

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