A gaggle of people from Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church gather at Starbucks in Greektown for an adventure with the human time machine. They are waiting for Karin Risko to take them back to the 19th century when Detroit was a pivotal location for fugitive slaves seeking freedom and bounty hunters hoping to snatch them and return them to southern plantations.
Risko, the Detroit-based owner of City Tour Detroit, leads several tours in warmer months called the Incredible Journey to Midnight: Detroit Underground Railroad Tour. Groups move from the basement of Second Baptist Church in Greektown, which dates back to 1836 and is one of the oldest black churches in the Midwest. Participants get to know Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Lisette Denison Forth, Seymour Finney and John Brown with four to six actors in period costumes singing songs and telling tales of survival during one of the meanest times of America’s history.
The Detroit Historical Society estimates there were at least seven known paths that led slaves from various points in Michigan to the Canadian shore and it is estimated that 200 Underground Railroad stops existed throughout Michigan between the 1820s and 1865 when President Lincoln outlawed slavery.
Risko shares tales that still linger under the concrete sidewalks, behind the skyscrapers and inside the journals that record family legacies. “This is a fascinating history and it isn’t being told,” she says.
Detroit was one of the most desired stops on the Underground Railroad because it represented the final stop before achieving freedom in Canada, which slaves called “Canaan.” The Detroit Historical Society estimates there were at least seven known paths that led slaves from various points in Michigan to the Canadian shore and it is estimated that 200 Underground Railroad stops existed throughout Michigan between the 1820s and 1865 when President Lincoln outlawed slavery. The last runs on the Underground Railroad ended in 1865 with the end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment’s abolishment of slavery.
Risko offers a three-hour, daytime walking tour for some groups, but the most popular is the lantern tour. Attendees file into the basement of Second Baptist Church where they are treated like freedom seekers in a pitch black safehouse while a gruff slave catcher pounds on the door and threatens the occupants. The hidden rooms below Second Baptist were known as Croghan Street Station to few outside of the conductors.
When time permits the tour participants visit with Bobbie Fowlkes-Davis who runs the Underground Railroad Reading Station Bookstore inside the church and tells stories of George DeBaptise, a local abolitionist who helped organize the church and labored to get slavery abolished for all. Risko shares this story and more from a thick notebook filled with research she collected over the years. Those taking her tours appreciate her depth of knowledge.
“I learned that the railroad was so underground there weren’t any official records and that after slavery was abolished everyone wanted to be included among the cool people who helped all those who escaped to freedom,” says Adriana LeeAnn Abel, a participant from c.
There were no train tracks, no lights, no easy passage from Georgia or Kentucky. People traveled by the North Star, by quilts hung on fences or by crude maps drawn by relatives. The lucky ones found the safe houses in Detroit.
Another participant, Trina Tocco, had a different take: “I have gone out to eat many times downtown but now the drive has entirely new meaning. I appreciate the chance to see a different time in the heart of Detroit. I don’t remember much on facts and figures, but the personal stories of emancipation shared during the tour will stick with me always.”
Risko hopes to bring the tour alive with compelling stories. Her favorite Detroiter was Lisette Denison Forth a slave born in Macomb Township on the property that became Selfridge Air Force Base. She escaped to freedom in Canada, lived in France, Pontiac and Grosse Isle, and built a house of her own in Detroit at Macomb and Brush streets. At one point she owned 48.5 acres in Pontiac, a steamboat and a bank, thanks to wise investments.
The best tale, according to participants from the church, was Finney Hotel at Woodward and Gratiot. White abolitionist Seymour Finney owned a hotel frequented by bounty hunters where the Compuware Building stands today. He would ply the hunters with sufficient drinks to put them out for the night so freedom seekers hiding in the barn nearby could move to the next safe house.
Tours wind up at the Gateway to Freedom sculpture by Ed Dwight at the foot of Hart Plaza. In this evocative, life-sized piece of art George de Baptiste points across to Windsor, Ontario, and freedom for those who could board a ship, a raft or any conveyance to reach their goal.
“The thing I liked best about Karin’s Underground Railroad tour was her ability to bring context to what I was looking at or where we were physically located,” says Paula Dirkes, tour participant. “She provided multiple details about what was going on in government, what laws were impacting black people, what the travel challenges were for black people and what risks the escaped slaves faced as well as the people who tried to protect them. She really provided a rich, multi-layered story for us to digest and appreciate.”
Risko sees the tours as an exciting form of placemaking. “People find Detroit roots are far deeper than they ever imagined. That courageous people have lived in every decade fighting the immortal cause of freedom,” she says.
She also offers other tours including the Notorious 313 tour of crime spots in Greektown or Corktown, the Murals and Monuments tour, See the D bus tour and Holiday Lights, among others.
For more information go to the website for a chance to travel into the past to learn more about our magnificent city.