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The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery…
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The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the…

by Tiya Miles

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Every couple of years I read a book either about Detroit or that is set in Detroit, often in historical settings. Each one gives me a little deeper insight into who I am based on the place I grew up. The idea of slavery in Detroit is not entirely new, but I had not considered it with much depth. Detroit is often posed as a place where slaves flee to in their journey toward freedom, not as a place of slavery. The older I get and the more I learn about American history, the more I realize that the nuance is often overlooked and there is no right side.

Miles begins the book in 1760 and moves through five periods, ending with the story of Elizabeth Denison who died in 1866. (The story of Elizabeth’s parents, Peter and Hannah, was intriguing, and I wish I had known about these figures before. This family’s role in the history of Detroit cannot be overstated.) Each of the periods explored were dominated by different rulers and who was in charge greatly influenced how slaves were viewed and treated. When the British pushed the French out of Detroit and into Canada, the social structure was put into upheaval and slaves did not fare as well. Likewise when Americans defeated the British.

Slavery in Detroit was different than slavery in the South. The plantation labor that dominated further south was replaced in Detroit with slaves working in shipping, hunting, hide processing, and other jobs related more closely to the fur trade. In addition, many of slaves in the Detroit River area were indigenous people. Bought and sold by Native groups as well as whites, these slaves were known as Panis.

This aspect of history has not been told often or deeply. The author uses primary documents to piece together the fragments of this mainly untold history. Much was not recorded or it was destroyed in fire. What she does present is a fascinating account of Afro-American and Native people’s subjugation and slavery’s deep roots in Detroit. Going forward when I read historical accounts, I will be looking for the enslaved people who are not mentioned but were integral to society.
1 vote Carlie | Feb 19, 2019 |
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Most Americans believe that slavery was a creature of the South, and that Northern states and territories provided stops on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. In this paradigm-shifting book, celebrated historian Tiya Miles reveals that slavery was at the heart of the Midwest's iconic city: Detroit. In this richly researched and eye-opening book, Miles has pieced together the experience of the unfree - both native and African American - in the frontier outpost of Detroit, a place wildly remote yet at the center of national and international conflict. Skillfully assembling fragments of a distant historical record, Miles introduces new historical figures and unearths struggles that remained hidden from view until now. The result is fascinating history, little explored and eloquently told, of the limits of freedom in early America, one that adds new layers of complexity to the story of a place that exerts a strong fascination in the media and among public… (more)

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