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Story and photos by Susan Cohn

High on Adventure, September 2018

  Detroit's Gateway to Freedom memorial   Detroit's Gateway to Freedom memorial plaque  
The Gateway to Freedom” statuary group, created by sculptor Ed Dwight as part of the International Underground Railroad Memorial, stands on the waterfront in Detroit, Michigan, on the edge of the narrow
strait that separates Detroit from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Detroit’s location made the city an important destination for enslaved people seeking a safe crossing to freedom before the Civil War.

From the early 1800s, The Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, was used by enslaved people in the United States to escape to free states and to Canada. The Railroad, at its most active between 1850 and 1860, followed more than one path, but none was more important than the way through Detroit, Michigan, because Canada was the ultimate destination for many freedom seekers. Code named “Midnight” by Underground Railroad “conductors,” Detroit provided access to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, just across the narrow Detroit River. The important role Detroit played is honored by the International Underground Railroad Memorial, consisting of bronze sculptures by artist Ed Dwight. “The Gateway to Freedom” on Detroit’s waterfront depicts a group preparing to board a boat. Pointing towards Windsor is George DeBaptist, a Detroit resident who helped those making their way to freedom. The Memorial is inscribed both with maps showing Underground Railroad routes to Detroit and with details of quilts that some historians believe were used to communicate information about safe houses.

  Detroit underground railroad routes  


Detroit Freedom Memorial quilt patters

Detroit’s proximity to the Canadian border made the city a point of convergence for those seeking freedom outside the United States.

Flying Geese, Stay on the Drunkard’s Path and Follow the Stars all refer to quilts that some historians theorize signaled the location of safe houses on the Underground Railroad route.

Moving, Emotional and Informative: The Underground Lantern Walking Tour follows in the footsteps of freedom seekers.

City Tour Detroit offers a walking tour that leads participants along two miles of the path freedom seekers took, beginning with a reenactment inside a safe house located in the isolated cellar beneath an historic church. City Tour Detroit Director Karin Risko said, “The idea for the Incredible Journey to Midnight tour came to me in early 2012 when I wanted to offer something different than other tour organizations in Detroit - evening lantern walking tours. I knew I had to do the tour after a conversation at work about my proposed tour elicited the same response from both black and white co-workers: "I didn't know the Underground Railroad ran through Detroit. I knew then, the story needed to be told and eventually came up with idea of using actors to tell the story. People find the tours emotional and informative. The reenactment in the basement of Second Baptist Church is both moving and disturbing as attendees get a brief glimpse into the dire circumstances freedom seekers faced. In a pitch black, crowded basement room they hear the ominous pounding on the door of a slave catcher and his footsteps are just a few feet away from their hiding place.” Derwin McKinney, who portrays abolitionists Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and Henry Bibb (1815-1854), said, “We get so many people who start off the tour reserved but then open up along the way in response to our powerful and thought-provoking scenes. This tour is unlike any other. We touch people emotionally and involve them in an interactive journey that follows in the footsteps of freedom seekers and climaxes at the Detroit River.”

City Tours Particulars The Incredible Journey to Midnight

The Detroit Underground Railroad Lantern Walking Tour is offered on select Saturday nights, including Aug. 25 and Sept. 29. The tour starts at Second Baptist Church, 411 Monroe St., Detroit, and ends at the Gateway to Freedom Monument, 1 Hart Plaza, Detroit. For more information, visit www,citytourdetroit.com/journey-to-midnight.

AND REMEMBER. Traveling – It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. Ibn Batutta.

Detroit view toward Windsor, Ontario
View of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, from The Gateway to Freedom monument in Detroit.

Susan Cohn is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, Bay Area Travel Writers, and the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association. She may be reached at susan@smdailyjournal.com. More of her stories may be found at http://ifwtwa.org/author/susan-cohn.

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