Exploring Michigan’s Underground Railroad Sites

Michigan played a crucial role in the Underground Railroad, helping countless enslaved people find their way to freedom. Today, you can visit several significant sites that commemorate this important chapter in American history.

When you follow the path of runaway slaves through Michigan to freedom in Canada, you’ll discover the history coming to life. From 1820 to 1865, a group of courageous American abolitionists, known as the Underground Railroad, worked secretly to help free slaves. In Michigan, these abolitionists provided safe houses, food, and guidance to help slaves cross the Detroit River to Canada, where slavery was outlawed.

Start your trip to Michigan with a visit to the world’s largest institution dedicated to the history and culture of African Americans. You’ll find the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in downtown Detroit, Michigan. It is located in the Detroit Cultural Center near the Detroit Science Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Explore a life-size reproduction of a slave ship and exhibits depicting the Underground Railroad.

Visit the Underground Railroad Reading Station Bookstore for tours of the Second Baptist Church of Detroit. The tours are by appointment only. The Second Baptist Church is Michigan’s oldest (1836) church with a black congregation. The last stop on the Underground Railroad in Michigan was the largest ‘station’ in Detroit. The church’s abolitionists helped an estimated 5,000 slaves reach freedom. One of their members, George De Baptiste, bought a ship to take slaves across the Detroit River. The “Gateway to Freedom” statue on the Detroit River Walk in the Hart Plaza honors De Baptiste. It depicts De Baptiste and eight slaves looking across the river to freedom.

Across the river, in Windsor, Ontario, visitors are greeted by a companion statue, “Tower of Freedom,” in Dieppe Park. (A valid U.S. passport, passport card, or NEXUS card is required for U.S. citizens’ entry into Canada.)

One of the most interesting historical tours I’ve ever taken was in Bay City, Michigan. The guided tour of The Bay County Historical Society pointed out local homes that were Underground Railroad stations. Along the tour route, the guide shared historical facts about the secret group. Although Bay City was not a major route on the Underground Railroad, the abolitionists there actively worked to free slaves.

Throughout southern Michigan, there are many reminders of the Underground Railroad. In Vandalia, Michigan, in southwestern Cass County, there is a Michigan Historical Marker at the junction for two Underground Railroad’ lines’ that ran from Illinois and Indiana. In Adrian, Michigan, Laura Smith Haviland is buried in the Raisin Valley Cemetery. This Quaker abolitionist, suffragette, and social reformer. Her home was the first Underground Railroad’ station’ in Michigan.

The 13th Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation, was signed into law on December 6, 1865. This law gave slaves their freedom and brought about the end of the Underground Railroad.

Travel Information for Underground Railroad Sites in Michigan

Here is travel information for some key Underground Railroad sites in Michigan.

Second Baptist Church – Detroit

Location: 441 Monroe St, Detroit, MI 48226
Open Hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 10:00 AM - 3:00 PM; Sunday, 1:00 PM - 4:00 PM
Second Baptist Church of Detroit

Second Baptist Church in Detroit is one of the most notable sites. Established in 1836, it was a crucial station on the Underground Railroad. The church’s basement served as a safe haven for runaway slaves.

Travel Tips:

  • Nearby Attractions: The church is located in Greektown, a vibrant area with numerous restaurants and shops.

Kellogg House – Battle Creek

Location: 1 Monroe St, Battle Creek, MI 49017
Open Hours: Monday to Friday, 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Kellogg House in Battle Creek

The Kellogg House was home to abolitionist Erastus Hussey, a key figure in the Underground Railroad. The house now serves as a museum showcasing the history of the anti-slavery movement in the region.

Travel Tips:

  • Nearby Attractions: While in Battle Creek, you can also visit the Sojourner Truth Memorial, honoring another significant abolitionist.

Nathan Thomas House – Schoolcraft

Location: 613 E Cass St, Schoolcraft, MI 49087
Open Hours: By appointment only

The Nathan Thomas House is one of the oldest houses in Kalamazoo County and served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Dr. Nathan Thomas and his wife Pamela provided shelter to many escaping slaves.

Travel Tips:

  • Tours: Since visits are by appointment, it’s best to call ahead and schedule your tour.

Underground Railroad Monument – Battle Creek

Location: 1 E. Michigan Ave, Battle Creek, MI 49014
Open Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

This monument is located in downtown Battle Creek and commemorates the efforts of the Underground Railroad. The monument features statues and plaques that tell the stories of those who passed through Michigan seeking freedom.

Travel Tips:

  • Nearby Attractions: After visiting the monument, take a walk around downtown Battle Creek to enjoy the local shops and eateries.

First Congregational Church – Detroit

Location: 33 E Forest Ave, Detroit, MI 48201
Open Hours: Monday to Friday, 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM

First Congregational Church in Detroit offers a unique living history tour called the “Underground Railroad Living Museum.” The tour allows visitors to experience the journey of escaping slaves through interactive exhibits and reenactments.

Travel Tips:

  • Tours: It’s recommended that you book your tour in advance, as they can fill up quickly.

Crosswhite Marker – Marshall

Location: 516 S Marshall Ave, Marshall, MI 49068
Open Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

The Crosswhite Marker in Marshall commemorates the Crosswhite family, who were fugitive slaves assisted by the local community. The marker stands at the location where Adam Crosswhite and his family were protected from slave catchers by Marshall residents.

Travel Tips:

  • Nearby Attractions: While in Marshall, visit the American Museum of Magic for an interesting diversion.

General Travel Tips

  • Plan Ahead: Many of these sites have specific hours of operation or require appointments, so it’s best to plan your visit in advance.
  • Guided Tours: Consider taking guided tours where available to gain deeper insights into the history and significance of each site.
  • Respect the Sites: These locations are historical landmarks, so please treat them with respect and follow any guidelines provided by the site managers.
  • Combine Visits: If you’re planning a road trip, combine visits to multiple sites to make the most of your journey through Michigan’s history.

When you explore the Underground Railroad sites in Michigan, you’ll gain a meaningful insight into the state’s important role in the fight for freedom. Each site has its own fascinating story, adding to the colorful tapestry of American history.

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About the author
Growing up in Detroit, Lindsey is a Michigan State University alumnus. She feels incredibly lucky to live in Detroit, and much more, to spend her days promoting the Detroit area as a travel destination.