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.

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