From the 1830s to the 1850s, George DeBaptiste played a major role in helping escaped slaves find freedom. “Runaway slaves reaching Detroit could find asylum at the home of George DeBaptiste,” wrote Benjamin Quarles in #Black Abolitionists. However, DeBaptiste did much more than just provide a safe house. He was also a manager of the Underground Railroad.
Neither a railroad, nor underground, it was a loose network of abolitionists, black and white, that helped slaves escape from their southern oppressors. Punctuated by safe houses, or “stations,” the Underground Railroad provided passage to the North. The Railroad communicated through hidden messages in church sermons, code language, and infamous “Notices to Stockholders”which announced movement of slaves through cryptic messages couched in railroad terminology. The exact number of slaves that traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom is unknown due to the fact that assisting a runaway slave was a crime and therefore the Railroad acted under extreme secrecy. Estimates vary widely from 40,000 to more than 100,000.
As a manager, or “stockholder,” as supporters of the Railroad called themselves, DeBaptiste was instrumental in assisting the movement of untold numbers of escaped slaves. An 1870 article on DeBaptiste’s early role in the Underground Railroad while still in Madison is recounted in Charles L. Blockson’s The Underground Railroad: “Under the management of DeBaptiste, the stations did a thriving business.” The article goes on to describe how DeBaptiste’s wagon would “break down” the day before a slave transport. The wagon would be locked in the repair shop of a wagon maker sympathetic to the abolitionists. In the dark of night, with his horses’ hooves shod in carpet to muffle their steps, the wagon would be snuck out of the shop, put together, and off they’d go to provide transport. By morning the wagon was back in disrepair locked safely in the shop and the horses, their feet carpet-free, would be secure in their stables.
Despite the precautions taken, DeBaptiste was known to be involved in assisting slaves to escape and for many years there were bounties on his head, including a &1000 bounty in Kentucky. This didn’t stop his work. In Detroit he transported slaves to Canada on the T. Whitney, listing his human cargo as “black wool” on customs sheets. He also served as head of the Colored Vigilance Committee of Detroit which was a more visible group than the Railroad. “In one two week period in 1854 the committee gave assistance to fifty-three freedom-bound blacks, a figure which grew to 1,043 for the period from May 1, 1855 to January 1, 1856,” wrote Quarles.
DeBaptiste kept associations with some of the most important abolitionists of the times including Frederick Douglas, an educated ex-slave and respected orator. He also knew John Brown, the white abolitionist who promoted violence as the way to combat #slavery. The church DeBaptiste belonged to, the Second Baptist Church of Detroit, also played a prominent role in assisting runaway slaves on their journey to freedom. The Detroit Historical Museum estimates that over 5,000 slaves passed through the church’s basement which served as a safe house during daylight. The church still stands in Detroit today and the basement has been turned into a museum.
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