Today my supervisor, Jenna Steiner, scheduled us for a tour on Black Americans in Detroit. It was one of the most amazing tours I have ever experienced. It was so informative and genuine. It also validated the effectiveness and the importance of oral history. As a black woman from Detroit and Southfield (a suburb of Detroit), I have been taught very little about the city.
I would say the most magnificent story we were told today was the story of how black community really started to formulate itself within the city. Our tour guide said that it started with Caroline French and Tabatha Lightfoot; they were the mothers of black Detroit. He told us the story of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn two runaway slaves that were in love with each other that had escaped to Detroit.
One day, someone close (I forget who) to Ruthie’s slave owner saw her in Detroit and so they hired slave catchers to pick her up. So eventually the two were imprisoned so that they could be picked up for capture.
So Caroline and Tabatha organized a meeting (I believe in a church) to save the two from being enslaved. So these mothers of Black Detroit went up to the prison to visit Ruthie and Caroline and Ruthie switched clothes. Because all black people look alike, the guards didn’t recognize the switch. So, Ruthie was sent off to Canada and the next day (pick up day), Caroline told the guards they had to let her go because she was free and she was raised in Detroit. They tried to keep her instead, but they failed. Following her exit, there was a mass of black people outside of the prison/jail. Why?
They had to get Thornton. So, when Thornton is put onto the pickup car the black crowd surrounded the car. Thornton told the white men to let him talk so sense into him and so he whispered (purposefully). He knew that if they couldn’t hear him, they would get in closer. And they did. Then he was handed a gun, I believe by Tabatha’s husband or Caroline’s, and he shot into the air.
He was freed and went to Canada. And out of that one event, black community grew, the first black church, a school (built inside that black church), black owned businesses, and so much more.