Tiya Miles is the author of the new book The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. Her other books include The Cherokee Rose and Tales from the Haunted South. She is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Q: You write, “Even in Detroit, in the North, and in Canada—places that we like to imagine as free—slavery was sanctioned by law and carried out according to custom.” What role did enslaved people play in the early days of Detroit?
A: The Dawn of Detroit explores how Detroit's first European settlers positioned themselves in relation to land, natural "resources," and people of color; how enslaved people persevered through adversity; and how surprising alliances were sometimes forged between white merchant elites, white working class people, and enslaved people in this borderland space.
Native people and African Americans were both enslaved within the town and along the expansive Detroit River. Both groups were essential to the success of the fur trade, Detroit's chief economic enterprise, as well as to the maintenance of domestic households and family farms. Detroit would not have developed into a major American metropolis without the contributions of Native and black enslaved residents.
Enslaved people were men and women as well as children, Native Americans as well as African Americans. Slave owners exploited unfree labor to develop and further the lucrative international trade in animal furs and to create and sustain the fort town.
Enslaved men packed and carried pelts across vast distances, manned ships that transported items across the Great Lakes, constructed buildings, delivered local goods, and did agricultural labor on farms.
Enslaved women did all manner of work within and around households, including: growing, preparing and serving foodstuff, sewing and cleaning linens and clothing, keeping domestic spaces livable, and caring for the children of their owners. The evidence suggests that Native women in particular were exploited in a particular form of sexual slavery.
Q: You note that this book had several origin stories. What were they, and how did they factor into the writing of your book?
A: The seed for this project was planted back in 2009 when I accompanied my class (a senior seminar in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies) on an Underground Railroad tour sponsored by the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. Our tour guide, Deborah Meadows, took us to a number of places, including the Ypsilanti Historical Museum.
This experience opened a portal of inquiry for me. I began to ask questions about local abolitionist history, which led me to see a major gap in the historical narratives about Detroit and the larger Northwest Territory regarding the presence and experience of enslaved people.
Around this same time, the University of Michigan, where I teach, began a cross-departmental discussion series on the topic of the Detroit School of Urban Studies – an area of thinking and body of scholarship that would center Detroit as a means of understanding present and future dynamics in American cities.
I started sitting in on those early discussions, where colleagues in urban planning, environmental issues, and twentieth-century history were examining questions of city politics, racial politics, community activism, social welfare, and food deserts.
And these conversations were all taking place amidst a backdrop of revelations of a former Detroit mayor’s wrongdoing, the city’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2013, the release of popular journalistic expose-style histories, and art books featuring photographs of dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
I was fascinated and disturbed by these convergences and wanted to write a history of Detroit that encompassed some of the questions of the Detroit School and undercut the image of Detroit as an ancient ruin, as a place whose time had passed.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: Around six years ago, I received funding from a program at my university to create a team of student researchers. Our team spent two years hunting for sources mostly locally and in Ontario.
Our major sources included: Manuscript collections of Detroit merchants, especially their account books and probate records; Michigan Territorial Supreme Court cases pertaining to freedom suits and the recapture of escaped slaves, and local disputes involving enslaved people; the papers of Augustus Woodward, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court; journals of British soldiers; French, British & U.S. censuses; Catholic and Moravian Church records, letters and reports of Detroit residents and military officials.
We presented our research at the Michigan History Conference of the Historical Society of Michigan. We created a map to mark sites we had noted as being important and took our own tour of Detroit.
As colleagues began to spread word of our team’s work and especially after we produced a website, people started writing to me with more sources from their areas of expertise.
We discovered a number of surprising things; chief among these was Detroit's early diversity. People today sometimes think of Detroit as a city that turned predominantly black in the mid-20th century.
It is true that the numbers of African Americans in Detroit skyrocketed during the Great Migration, and in the 1940s in particular, but blacks had been living there for centuries.
Detroit has always been a multiracial and multi-ethnic place. Native Americans, especially Ottawas and Hurons, were the first to camp, hunt and work the waterways in the area prior to the arrival of the French contingent in 1701.
Native villages (Huron, Ottawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Miami, Fox) soon developed around the town for the purposes of the fur trade. Scores of Native people from other tribes were also enslaved in Detroit.
And Detroit has had a black presence since the earliest years of its existence as a French fur trade fort. French and British traders brought black enslaved people from Montreal and New York into the town to perform the labors that made domestic life and the economy sustainable.
There has been a significant population of color in Detroit for nearly three hundred years– not always large in number, but great in action and influence.
Q: What do you see as the legacy of this earlier Detroit, and how does it relate to the Detroit of today?
A: One of the biggest takeaways for me from this research project is that problems that are tearing apart our modern post-industrial cities are not new or natural. They trace back to old social structures and customs and to decisions people and governments have made to privilege certain groups over others and to damage the natural world – all in pursuit of excessive profit.
Detroit's challenges around the treatment of laborers as disposable, social and economic stratification, and even governmental corruption, all have roots in the colonial era.
The most intriguing aspect of this project has been learning about the ways in which history matters for contemporary Detroiters. I have had the opportunity to talk with people who have a great love for and commitment to their city and who think that investigating history can open the door for greater empathy, collaboration, and coalition building today. History is about the present and future as well as the past.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am juggling two projects right now that have really captured my imagination. The first is a novel based on my Detroit research that will feature a contemporary African American/Native American mixed-race woman who finds herself in urgent need of the knowledge that Detroit Underground railroad operators built in the 1800s. The second is a history of African American women during slavery that features a rediscovered textile.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb