THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Symbol of Black History on the Auction Block: From the Detroit Stories

The announcement was buried among hundreds of others in the special section of the Detroit newspaper informing readers of properties in foreclosure in Wayne County. But Second Baptist Church, located at 461 Monroe Avenue Avenue, is no ordinary piece of property. It is a part of the American landscape that, like the Statue of Liberty, represented hope and a new beginning for those fleeing the tyranny of slavery in America for a new beginning in Canada. Second Baptist Church served as an end-station of the Underground Railroad. The announcement of the pending foreclosure for back taxes was akin to putting an important symbol of Black History on the auction block.

"This is ours," my mother opined the next day from the other end of the phone, when I mentioned the announcement during our usual morning conversation. "It's our responsibility to save it. People on Social Security can do this. I'll put in twenty dollars, and add a little more if needed."

My mother is a firm believer that a little action by many can pay big dividends. "If everyone is willing to pick up a stick, no one will have to carry a log," she says. It is this kind of determination and dedication that helped to make Second Baptist the symbol that it became.

Located in the city's historic Greektown, the congregation was established in 1836. Thirteen former slaves broke off from First Baptist Church, ironically because of its discriminatory practices, and established their church at its Monroe street location, less than a mile from the Detroit River, a waterway to freedom. Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass were just a few of the abolitionists associated with the church.

George De Baptiste, a member of Second Baptist and a Detroit businessman, brought a steamboat, the T Whitney, to take runaways across the river to Canada. Because blacks were not allowed to captain a ship, he had to hire a white man, Captain Atwood, a dedicated abolitionist, to pilot the ship. Baptiste, along with other member of the congregation, would also hide fugitive slaves in their homes before making the crossing.

Runaway slaves were sheltered in the cavernous rooms of the basement of Second Baptist before making the night crossing of the river led by the so-called "conductors" of the Underground Railroad. Starting in 1936, more than 5000 former slaves passed through Second Baptist on their way to freedom from what became the largest African American Church in the Midwest.

In later years, Second Baptist was also instrumental in helping blacks who migrated to Detroit find employment and housing. Following the implementation of Henry Ford's $5-per-day pay for assembly line workers, Second Baptist, working with Ford officials, assisted in the recruitment of black workers for the River Rouge Plant and other facilities.

This historic church played a large role in helping African Americans move from chattel to citizenship in America. It is not only, as my mother said, ours to save, but also ours to cherish. It is an important part of the country's history.