Detroit Abolitionist William Lambert

Feb 19, 2020

The story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad was recently turned into the biographical film “Harriet”. The film, which chronicles Tubman’s efforts to help enslaved African-Americans escape to free states, went on to be nominated at the 2020 Academy Awards.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl spoke with historian Ken Coleman via Facetime about abolitionist William Lambert and Detroit’s connection to the Underground Railroad.


KEN COLEMAN: William Lambert was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1815. Ultimately, he finds his way to Michigan and Detroit proper, specifically, but Lambert was a leading Michigan abolitionist during the 1800s, and many of the efforts that were carried out along the Underground Railroad, the system that brought black slaves from the south, through Detroit and ultimately to Canada. William Lambert played a major role in that effort during the middle part of the 1800s.

SCOTT POHL: Born in 1817, died in 1890, so he lived to survive the Civil War and the years after.

COLEMAN: Absolutely. Detroit not only played a role in the Underground Railroad, but certainly played a role too on the union side, fighting during the Civil War, and those were exciting times. William Lambert was one of the more prominent Detroit residents of the day.

POHL: Born in New Jersey and living in Detroit, he and his family were free African-Americans in the 1800s. Correct?

COLEMAN: Absolutely. What we know is that at least one of his parents were free, and possibly both of them.

POHL: I want to learn more about his work with the Underground Railroad because I understand that at least once, he worked to help a slave escape to Canada, and that at the time that turned out to be an act that helped lead to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Was there more of that sort of thing as opposed to just the one that I'm aware of or can read about online?

COLEMAN: The case that really received a lot of attention is the escape of Thornton and Ruth Blackburn in 1833, African-Americans who had escaped slavery in Kentucky, through the Underground Railroad. (They) ultimately sought freedom in Canada, but some accounts point out that Lambert and others may have been very much prominent in helping as many as 50,000 African-Americans from the south gain ultimate freedom, either here in Detroit, or ultimately in Amherstberg in Ontario, Canada.

POHL: Do we know with any precision where the Underground Railroad, I don't know if the right word would be terminated, but where it came to the Detroit River, and where it emerged in Canada?

COLEMAN: We do. Second Baptist Church, which is the oldest African-American congregation in Michigan. Second Baptist Church was really sort of the last stop along the Underground Railroad. You can still see the quarters where African-American slaves were held in the basement of Second Baptist Church. It's located in the Greektown area of downtown Detroit. Second Baptist Church offers tours for people to see those quarters under the sanctuary where African-American slaves really rested at the last stop before traveling a half mile or so to the riverfront and escaping across the Detroit River to Canada.

POHL: Speaking of the riverfront, there is a monument or statue along the Detroit River that faces South toward Windsor.

COLEMAN: Absolutely, and it celebrates the work of people like William Lambert, African-Americans and, I should point out, whites too. White abolitionists were part of the effort ultimately to help African-Americans from the south escape.

One of the great, great things that Lambert was in the early part of the early years of this time in Detroit, was helping to found the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society in 1837. Lambert and whites like Shubael Conant, and others, were part of that process, and so Lambert has a very full history in the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

Ken Coleman Tweets about Detroit history every morning. Find him on Twitter: @HistoryLivesDet