Black History Month theme highlights Black Migrations
Children gather along line of march to welcome home to the 369th Regiment at a parade on Fifth Avenue parade (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration photo/Public Domain)
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History announced the theme for Black History Month 2019 is Black Migrations, focusing on the movement of people of African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities.
The theme highlights migration of Blacks in all forms from the early decades of the 20th century when African-American migration patterns included relocation from farms to cities. Blacks also moved from the South to the Northeast, Midwest and West. Focus is also on immigrants from the Caribbean to American cities as well as to migrant labor farms and the emigration of noted African-Americans to Africa and to European cities, such as Paris and London, after the end of World War I and World War II.
ASALH officials stated, “Black Migrations equally lends itself to the exploration of the century’s later decades from spatial and social perspectives, with attention to ‘new’ African-Americans because of the burgeoning African and Caribbean population in the U.S.; Northern African-Americans’ return to the South; racial suburbanization; inner-city hyperghettoization; health and environment; civil rights and protest activism; electoral politics; mass incarceration; and dynamic cultural production.”
One of the most prominent examples of Black movement is the Great Migration that occurred between 1916 and 1970 in which 6 million African-Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West. Escaping racial inequality and searching for better opportunity, Blacks took their traditions from states such as Mississippi and South Carolina and migrated to northern cities such as New York, Detroit and Chicago. Specific highlights for this year’s theme include the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City as a result of Black migration, the Black urbanization of American cities and the impact Black migration has had on American art and culture.
ASALH was founded in 1915 by Woodson. Under his leadership, the organization presented the first African-American History Celebration in 1926. The organization focuses on a specific theme each year.
The Harlem Renaissance
Marcus Garvey’s UNIA parade in Harlem in 1920 (NYPL photo)
The period of time between the late 1910s and the mid-1930s, when Black cultures thrived in northern Manhattan, is known as the Harlem Renaissance. Historians generally regard this movement as one of the main initiators of the African-American’s rebirth—artistically, culturally, economically, educationally, politically and socially—in the Western Hemisphere during the past 100 years.
Barely half a century after the inhumane institution of chattel slavery was allegedly abolished in the land of the free in 1865 after the Civil War, and several decades removed from the Reconstruction era (1865-1877), millions of the descendants of those formerly enslaved Africans relocated from the economically deprived rural South to the industrialized urban North during the Great Migration throughout the earlier half of the 20th century.
As the racist Jim Crow segregation laws and lynching thrived down South, Blacks found solace in a rapidly developing, and more liberal, New York City, where Africans from the Caribbean amalgamated with them.
In 1917, Virgin Islands native Hubert Harrison, “The Father of Harlem Radicalism,” established the first newspaper and first organization of the “New Negro” movement—The Voice and the Liberty League.
A decade later, Harrison argued that “the Negro Literary Renaissance” notion overlooked “the stream of literary and artistic products which had flowed uninterruptedly from Negro writers from 1850 to the present,” and said the so-called Renaissance was largely “a [Caucasian] invention.”
Yet the new term stuck.
Fueled by relevant education and spiritual emancipation, the self-determining movement reinforced race pride among Blacks by challenging society’s degrading stereotypes and providing alternative Black images from those portrayed in black-face and minstrel shows.
Also, with Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple being established in Newark, N.J., in 1913, it didn’t take long for Islam to gain popularity in Harlem. Voodoo’s spiritual system provided alternatives to European-based Christianity and was very influential then.
Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Roland Hayes and Willie “The Lion” Smith gained prominence during this era, and their music would go on to influence future generations.
During this time, blues and jazz music blossomed. Artists and writers attracted millions from the African Diaspora as they recounted the grim realities they endured in the wilderness of North America.
“The zenith of this flowering of [Black] literature,” is how James Weldon Johnson described the Harlem Renaissance.
Authors/activists Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Eric D. Walrond, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, Omar Al Amiri, Walter White and Zora Neale Hurston were all part of the intellectual reawakening.
Actors/entertainers Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker helped redefine how Black men and women were portrayed by reinforcing positive and uplifting images of their race, and by becoming major fashion trendsetters.
Men wore loose suits with wide brim hats that eventually led to the later style known as “Zoot suits.”
W.E.B. Du Bois was among those from the Black intelligentsia, who also contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.
“[The Blackman] must build on his own basis apart from the [Caucasian] man’s foundation if he ever hopes to be a master builder,” said Marcus Garvey.
Marcus Garvey’s U.N.I.A. “back to Africa” campaign and Arthur Schomburg’s display of rare African artifacts both contributed to conservations regarding the Pan-African paradigm.
There are many others who also contributed. The Great Depression during the 1930s and several other factors caught many off guard and sidetracked the movement, although many ideas lived on much longer.
The Harlem Renaissance allowed African-Americans to resurrect themselves and go from being portrayed as uneducated country bumpkins to projecting positive images of themselves as articulate, progressive, sophisticated artists and intellectuals, all of which significantly raised their self-esteem. It also gave them a platform to have a voice and redefined how America, and the world, viewed African-Americans. Additionally, it helped plant the seeds for the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that followed decades later.
Addisleigh Park: Sweet harmony in a time of struggle
Ella and Billie sang there. Basie swung there...and James Brown boogied down there.
For more than a generation, one neighborhood was home to some of the most famous African-American entertainers, athletes, and businesspeople. And the neighborhood once known as “the Black Hollywood East” has now been designated a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
The designation of this vibrant, attractive neighborhood of beautifully landscaped, turn-of-the-century English Tudor and other classically designed homes is a celebration of the rich history of the community and “illuminates African-Americans’ struggle for and achievement of the basic civil right of home ownership,” according to the commission.
The Landmark designation also means that the unique character and architecture of the neighborhood will be preserved, because the LPC will have to approve any major alterations to houses including extensions or significant changes to the facades.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Addisleigh Park was the home of some of the biggest-named entertainers and athletes of their time. One of the first Black residents of the neighborhood was Thomas “Fats” Waller, who came to the neighborhood in the 1930s. Other entertainers followed his lead, including Count Basie, who held legendary pool parties at his home with his wife Catherine; Duke Ellington’s son and band leader, Mercer Ellington; and other jazz greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Brooke Benton. The Godfather of Soul lived there in the 1960s and 1970s--he built a moat around his home. And baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella called the neighborhood home. Dr. William McKinney, who bought his Addisleigh Park home more than 50 years ago from legendary heavyweight champion Joe Louis, said “I think it’s great, and dammit, I want my name in there too.”
Addisleigh Park was one of the first suburban-style neighborhoods where Black people could live in New York City. Located in the Southeast Queens neighborhood of St. Albans, the enclave lies in a rough triangle bounded by Linden Boulevard on the south, 112th Avenue on the north, 180th Street on the east and Merrick Boulevard on the west. The triangle-shaped St. Albans Congregational Church--where Fitzgerald once prayed--is also located within the neighborhood’s boundaries but is not included in the landmarking designation.
Addisleigh Park and St. Albans are important neighborhoods because they were the first places that offered African-Americans the opportunity to share in the so-called American dream of a home and a yard. Kenneth Austin, a Manhattan lawyer who grew up in Queens, remembers the neighborhood from his youth, when his family owned a house on 174th Street. His grandfather built their former family home in 1928, and the property stayed in the family for more than fifty years until the 1970s. “This is a wonderful opportunity for community to be recognized,” said Austin. “Every other historic community has received recognition.”
During and after the Harlem Renaissance, Sugar Hill and Strivers’ Row became home to many Black luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and others, said Roscoe Brown, who heads the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Education Policy.
But, as time went on and it became more fashionable to live in suburbia, many Blacks began moving to Queens in search of houses over apartments, and big backyards for their kids to play in, said Greg Mays, who grew up in St. Albans and whose family owns a home in Addisleigh Park. Mays, the former president of the Addisleigh Park Civic Association, has been a leader of the campaign for landmark status. His parents, both educators who raised their family in neighboring St. Albans, restored and moved into an Addisleigh Park home in the late 1980s. The Mays family are typical Addisleigh Park residents--for generations the neighborhood has been home to both middle- and upper-income Black families.
In addition to being a home to legendary figures, Addisleigh Park was important to Black people because, in the 1950s, racial covenants which prohibited Blacks from owning certain homes were overturned in the neighborhood.
Artist Brent Baylor, a second-generation owner in Addisleigh Park, remembered the white neighbors’ response to his father’s purchase of a home in 1948. “The people on the block voted on whether to allow us to move in, and, of the 24 families, only one voted in our favor,” Baylor recalled. “That family became our best friends.”
Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the restrictive covenants unconstitutional, officially lifting a legal--if not the only--barrier to equal opportunity for Blacks in housing. “Even before the decision, white owners and Black buyers were making deals in defiance of the covenants, and, as more Blacks moved in, ‘white flight’ increased,” says percussionist Bill Jacobs, whose family came to the neighborhood in 1950.
The Supreme Court victory was attended by mounting activism among African-Americans and their allies for equality in all aspects of American life.
Psychologist Regina Meacham, whose late father, the prominent Harlem attorney Thornton Meacham, moved his family to Addisleigh Park in 1952, warmly recalled her childhood as peaceful and protected, insulated from the racial storms swirling around the country. “The struggle wasn’t over in the north, and probably not even in New York,” she said. “But it was over for us in Addisleigh Park.
Black Migration to California
University of Southern California African-American students (l. to r.) Edwin Jefferson, Mattie Pearl Hawkins, Warner R. Wright, and Willia B. Nickerson in the 1920's.
For the United States, World War II began after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy. A year before that, the military draft began and more young men were going into military service. After the Pearl Harbor attack, millions enlisted into service to defend our nation. For those who fought in the Pacific Theatre, California military bases were the venue for final training and deployment to the battle lines. Also, our industrial activity was expanding exponentially creating a growing demand for workers. The demand was so great that race didn’t matter. They needed workers in a desperate way as national security depended on it. This became the perfect place for young Black men growing up in the Jim Crow South.
During this time, growing up in the South was terribly demanding. My people were from Bossier Parish, Louisiana. It was basically wooded countryside. Very few people had steady employment. Basically, they lived off the land – farming, fishing, hunting and raising poultry, hogs and cattle for precious protein. My maternal grandfather was a sharecropper while my paternal grandfather was dirt poor but hustled up temporary work here and there. Living conditions were deplorable by our standards today. Most people lived in little wooden homes they had built themselves. The homes had no plumbing as there was no infrastructure built outside of Bossier City (much of Bossier City had no plumbing, either). If you needed water, you went outside to a well. If you needed to use a toilet, you went outside to an outhouse (little wooden structure saddled over a deep hole in the ground). Some didn’t have an outhouse, like my maternal grandparents. You went out into the woods and did your business. Imagine no electricity. Many children would sleep on the wooden floor with sheets.
The school system, for Blacks, was quite basic. The children would attend school three months a year. That was during winter when there were no crops to tend to. The other nine months were spent in the field. The education consisted of reading, writing and arithmetic. There were no high schools for Blacks; education extended to the eighth grade. If you dared to go to high school, you would have to travel to Shreveport and board or stay with relatives. Two of my father’s sisters somehow made it through high school. That was so prestigious that they were given teacher certificates and began teaching school.
It was certainly rough. If a child became sick their chances of survival were slim. Just about every family experienced childhood death amongst their offspring. My father lost a brother and a sister to the flu. My mother’s oldest brother died before he was 10 years old. Healthcare was certainly Third World ,if it existed at all. Most couples strived to have many children to offset those who would not live to adulthood and, also to work the fields as free laborers.
Bossier Parish was typical of the rural South that was the venue for the vast majority of Blacks during pre-World War II. Take the above and mix it with pure, evil and debilitating racism. Our Jim Crow style of racism was so fierce that after World War II the White South Africans modeled their apartheid system after it. They found it most effective in suppressing a certain group of people. Southern Blacks were not full citizens nor were they protected by the U.S. Constitution. Our nation during this part of history was a sham of a democracy.
So when these young Black soldiers went to California, they started to realize what freedom means. No more rural areas but cities and growing towns with complete modern infrastructure. They saw a job market that was accepting all people regardless of race. Housing was plentiful. Communities were even starting to build public housing for the new residents to get a jump start on family life. Immediately, they started writing home about this new and sparkling California. From their word of mouth alone, Southern Blacks starting venturing out to the West Coast.
As the war ended, these Black veterans started settling in California. They sent for their loved ones. Wives, brothers, sisters and friends were joining these young veterans. Veterans had priority on all of the defense jobs that were recently created so it wouldn’t take long to find a good paying job.
Many would settle in clusters. Many of the Black students I grew up with had parents who grew up with my parents back in Bossier Parish. We would even develop Southern style “tribes.” The Texan migrants might have a football game with the Oklahoma migrants. We Louisianans might take on the kids with Arkansas roots. In all it was fun.
The Great Migration was a Triumph of the Black Press
Former New York Amsterdam News Building, 2293 Seventh Avenue (Library of Congress)
There were over six hundred Black families applying for 53 apartment units in just one day in Chicago in 1917. In two years, more than 100 storefront churches would dot the South Side. By 1930 the number would climb to 338. During that time, the Black populations of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and other major northern and western cities would explode as thousands arrived by train almost on a daily basis. In these cities a Black middle class was established and the largest migration of Blacks in American history swept the nation.
Today, on the 100th Anniversary of the Great Migration, many Blacks in the Midwest and Northeast have parents and grandparents who migrated from the South. Because of direct train routes, Blacks in Chicago are more likely to have parents or relatives from Mississippi. Blacks in New York and Philadelphia are likely to grandparents from South Carolina. The correlation exists also for other northern states that were accessible by direct routes that served their southern states.
Many left the South during the Great Migration, two periods in American history where the Black population dramatically shifted north and helped transform major cities in the Midwest, Northeast, and West. It’s also a period that gave birth to “Bronzeville” as a Black Metropolis, where thriving businesses, prominent writers and artists flourished during the Harlem Renaissance.
The force behind this movement was the Black Press. And behind the Black Press was the FBI and city officials who aimed to keep Blacks in their place.
Most Blacks who migrated from the South were poor Black men who temporarily left behind families while risking their lives for a future that was uncertain. Their wives and children would stay behind until the men would secure better paying jobs that would support their families.
With little money and the long journey, many did survive the trip. Others were not allowed to board the vehicles by racist train managers. Blacks who did make the trip experienced a side of America that was once off limits to them. Cities that flourished with economic opportunities and better captured the imagination of some six million Blacks, who for the longest time, yearned for prosperity and freedom.
They came from the South, a region whose economy was still struggling from the devastation caused by the Civil War and slavery. For thousands of Black families, jobs opportunities were few. The American dream remained distant and many could not read or write because of the lack of schools in segregated neighborhoods.
When several Black newspapers landed in the hands of many Black southerners, eyes widened and hopes grew. Headlines and stories that detailed the lives newly planted Black migrants triggered seismic migration and established the Black Press as a significant institution, one that would come under heavy scrutiny as it fiercely advocated the civil rights of Blacks across the country.
The Black Press was around long before the Great Migration, beginning with Freedom’s Journal in 1827. However, historians argue that the Great Migration was a major chapter in history that helped define the Black Press.
In Chicago, many Black men secured jobs as Pullman Porters, which historians say established the city’s Black middle class. Before the mass migration 67 Blacks worked in Chicago’s Union Stockyards, where they slaughtered and process meat and cattle. After the first migration, the number hovered around 3,000. Most Black Pullman Porters and Stockyard workers were earning higher wages than the jobs they left in the South. On the South Side, the editor of the now defunct Chicago Bee, James Gentry, first coined the named “Bronzeville” because of the newly arrived Blacks from the South. The Chicago Crusader, which originated in the Ida B. Wells housing projects in 1940, published stories that advocated more job opportunities and housing as more Black migrants arrived.
Other Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Philadelphia Tribune and New York Amsterdam News printed inspiring stories that sparked a migration explosion that began in 1916. Because of the Great Depression, the movement would cool before thousands more would move North between the 1950s and 1970s. One hundred years later, historians and residents today are marking the milestone with celebrations and seminars to educate a young generation whose parents and grandparents likely migrated from the South.
White newspapers during the Great Migration did not print stories about Blacks or their progress. The newspaper that has been widely credited for sparking the Great Migration is the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that was started with just 25 cents by Robert Sengstacke Abbott in 1905. Because of racism, Abbott, a native of Savannah Georgia, was unable to establish a law practice in Chicago and Gary, Ind. After he founded the paper in the kitchen of his landlord’s apartment, Abbott wrote scathing editorials against racism and ran stories that highlighted the success of Blacks migrants in Chicago. He urged readers to leave the South and posted job listings, train schedules, and photos of the best schools, parks and housing in the city, in comparison to the deplorable conditions in the South.
Because of its coverage, the Defender gained a heavy readership. According to various news reports, the paper was read aloud during church services, in barbershops, homes and on the streets. With stories on Black culture, weddings and lifestyles, the Defender became a must read for Blacks. The paper’s readership went from 10,000 in 1916 to 230,000 in a week. During that time, as many as four readers reportedly shared a copy of the Defender.
Some White newsstands refused to carry the paper. In Mississippi, one county banned the Defender, declaring it “German propaganda.” In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the city sued to get an injunction to prohibit the circulation of the Defender. Eighteen Black leaders including two ministers were named defendants in the lawsuit. In addition, the FBI began spying on the Defender six months before World War I, according to the Black Press Research Collective, a group of scholars who posted the report in March 2013. The report said the government kept a “vigilant watch” over the Defender and several Black newspapers, which were feared of having ties to the Communist Party.
The Atlanta Independent, a defunct newspaper that ran from 1903 to 1928, was also prohibited from being circulated.
Despite the challenges, the Defender still flourished. A shrewd businessman, Abbott by 1920, employed 563 newsboys to sell his paper on the street. In Southern states, Black Pullman Porters from Chicago smuggled the paper on the trains and dropped them off to a pickup person. Many did so while risking their jobs and lives. They were also carried in churches, barbershops and black businesses. In the early twentieth century, the Defender was the best selling Black newspaper in the country.
Another banned Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier (now the New Pittsburgh Courier), used the Black Pullman Porters to carry out its “Stop and Drop” campaign, where a bundle of papers were dropped before they were sold.
The Courier’s readership also skyrocketed. With papers in fourteen major cities, the Courier’s weekly circulation peaked at 500,000, according to news reports.
Today, the Black Press is faced with new challenges and opportunities. With race relations back in the nation’s spotlight, the Black Press is poised to bounce back after years of declining readership. There are also fading job opportunities in the North that are fueling what many are calling a reverse migration. Many Blacks whose parents and grandparents moved to the North are heading back south. According to the U.S. Census, between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 1,336,097 Blacks moved to Southern cities alone, according to the Brookings Institute, which based the study on recent U.S. Census data.
In 2011, Atlanta overtook Chicago as the city with the second largest Black population. Chicago is number three while New York maintains the top spot.
The Chicago Crusader is a member publication of the NNPA. Learn more about becoming a member at NNPA.org.
Philanthropist and Colorado pioneer, Clara Brown
Recently, while browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Cary, N.C., I bumped into a book lover who recognized me and asked me if I had ever heard of Clara Brown. For a moment, I thought I knew who he was referring to, but upon further discussion I discovered I was completely mistaken. He clicked on his cellphone to provide me additional information about her and I promised him I would check her out and possibly profile her in Classroom.
I wasn’t sure if there was enough biographical material on her to fill the column, but here’s my promise to Sekou.
Clara Brown was born a slave in Fredericksburg, Va. Jan. 1, 1800, a year that coincides with another notable Virginian, Nat Turner, who was born Oct. 2, 1800. Over the last year or so, with the release of Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” more Americans have learned about the slave revolt Turner led in 1831. They know less about Brown, although Sekou insisted that her life would also be the source of a compelling film.
Brown’s story was typical of African captives. She and her mother were the property of Ambrose Smith, a tobacco farmer. At a very early age, like so many of Smith’s slaves, she worked in the tobacco fields, and when the Smith family moved from Virginia to Kentucky, Brown and her mother moved with them.
Brown was a teenager when she married another slave named Richard in 1818, and they had four children—Richard, Margaret, Paulina Ann and Eliza Jane. The family experience its first tragedy when Paulina Ann, Eliza’s twin sister, drowned. In 1835, the family was jolted again by the death of Smith, who apparently was a benevolent master. More profoundly, his death meant the family was in jeopardy and the entire family, for the Smith family to settle the estate, was sold on an auction block, which sent them in separate directions
Brown, now in her 50s, had a life-changing circumstance when her new owner, George Brown, died. His daughters gave Brown her freedom, which had a proviso that she leave the state, and she departed for St. Louis to work for a merchant. When the family she worked for moved to Leavenworth, Kan., she went with them and later her employer helped her establish her own laundry business. This venture was of short duration and Brown acceded to the clamor that lured so many to the West in search of gold and other opportunities. It was also an opportunity for her to search for her family.
It is not explained why she thought by traveling west she could find members of her family, but before long she was working for a group of gold prospectors on their way to Colorado. According to some reports, Brown became the first African-American woman to settle in Colorado during the gold rush.
“Once she reached Colorado,” according Biography.com, “she moved from town to town, seeking economic opportunities. Settling in Central City, she made money by running a laundry business and became quite a success. Brown earned enough to buy property and invest in mines. She was known to help anyone in need. A pious Christian, Brown also hosted religious services in her home and was a strong supporter of the Methodist Church.” She was also a founding member of the church’s Sunday school and often led prayer services. Because of philanthropic aid and emotional support to those in need, she was dubbed “Aunt Clara.” “I always go where Jesus calls me,” she was often known to say.
Noted writer, Frank C. Young, reputed as the Washington Irving of the Rockies, said about Brown: “In our little community everyone knew everyone else, whatever might be the positive differences in social position. In this connection I might speak of Aunt Clara Brown. She was raised in old Kentucky, and with her won freedom secured after years of persistent, patient toil, when well along in life she joined the procession of gold seekers to Gregory gulch. Through the unusual returns of a mining camp for labor such as hers, she was able to bring out from the old plantation her children and later her children’s children relatives.”
When the Civil War concluded, Brown returned to the South, now in search of her daughter, Eliza Jane. (And Sekou, I couldn’t find any connection between Eliza Jane and the song “Little Liza Jane.”) The rest of her family, she learned were either dead or forever missing. The search proved futile, although she was successful in helping a number of former slaves to start a new life in Central City, Colo., where she had returned.
At the age of 79, she was still actively involved in helping others get their lives together after slavery and the Civil War. Then she received news that relieved her of some her hardships. Her daughter Eliza Jane, she was told, was alive and well and living in Iowa. After more than a half-century of separation, they were reunited.
Brown died in Denver Oct. 23, 1885, but before her death she was honored and inducted into the Society of Colorado Pioneers, mainly because of the role she played during the Colorado gold rush. A coterie of local dignitaries attended her funeral, including Denver’s mayor, John Long Routt, and Colorado Governor James Benton Grant. The Central City Opera House dedicated a permanent memorial chair in her name. She is buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery.
William Lambert, Detroit’s great Underground Railroad conductor
A few days ago on March 10, there were a number of events commemorating the death of Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist who died on this date in 1913. A friend of mine asked me had I seen segments of “Underground,” now airing on WGN, which depicts a group of courageous runaway slaves from plantations in Georgia. I have not seen the series, but invariably, if they are referencing the Underground Railroad, then Tubman, a pioneer in these escape routes, must be at least mentioned.
The Underground Railroad is something I discuss at length in my forthcoming book “Black Detroit—A People’s History of Self-Determination,” and considerable space is given to the indomitable William Lambert, who, like Tubman, was a major conductor on the fabled railroad to freedom.
From his station, or terminal, in Detroit, Lambert helped to spirit many runaways across the river to Canada, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 that extended even greater power to bounty hunters.
Born in Trenton, N.J., Lambert was 21 when he arrived in Detroit in 1838. He had visited the city on two previous occasions while working on boats that plied the Great Lakes. With an activist background inculcated by Quakers, he wasted no time getting acquainted with like-minded abolitionists in the city.
When he wasn’t working as a tailor, he could be found among the leaders of the city’s antislavery organizations. His main preoccupation was working as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, assuring the safety of runaway slaves during their stay in Detroit and then escorting them to freedom across the river.
He was a phenomenal conductor, and although he might have exaggerated the number of fugitives he guided to Canada, the general consensus among historians is that some 40,000 men, women and children in flight from bondage passed through his gentle and caring hands. His prominence as a conductor was soon superseded by his skills as an orator, when in 1840 he addressed the Michigan legislature, demanding a constitutional franchise for an increasing Black population that had grown to 707 in the state and 193 in the city.
These migrants often arrived with only the clothes on their backs. The churches were the most accommodating sanctuary for them. Nowhere were the doors more open and the sanctuary more inviting than at Second Baptist Church, Detroit’s oldest Black church, where Lambert was a founding member.
In 1846, Lambert left Second Baptist Church and played a key role in establishing St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal Mission. As he had done at the previous church, he was a leader in biblical and general education, particularly teaching Sunday school and other subjects for the church’s members.
Joining Lambert in a leadership role at St. Matthew’s was the Rev. William Monroe, and under their stewardship the church soon surpassed Second Baptist and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal in membership, ultimately becoming the most influential Black church in Detroit.
Lambert, along with his notable associate, George DeBaptiste, was allegedly affiliated with a group of renegades called the McKensyites, who took slaves from their owners to resell them. “Sometimes they sold slaves three and four times before bringing them north,” one historian concluded. Lambert said he used these scoundrels, believing the ends justified the means. With DeBaptiste, Lambert created an elaborate system of communication that combined secret handshakes and passwords that they defined as the African-American Mysteries: The Order of the Men of Oppression. The system made it possible to convey information from passengers to conductors on the railroad, thereby facilitating safe passage.
The duo also used a system devised by DeBaptiste, during his tenure as a conductor in Indiana, of switches of horses and wagons to throw the slave catchers off the trail of the horses, all of whom knew how to get from station to station in pitch darkness.
As a member of the Colored Vigilant Committee of Detroit, Lambert was among the abolitionists who assembled on evening in 1858 to discuss with John Brown his idea of a Provisional Constitution that would be introduced at a meeting in Chatham, Ontario. Brown had composed the document while living with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. During the meeting, Lambert agreed to be a treasurer of what Brown envisioned as an anti-slavery government. And Lambert was among those gathered to continue the plans when Brown returned the following year.
Over the remaining decades of his life, Lambert continued to be a devout civil servant and the patriarch of a family that was counted among the city’s elite. His daughter, Mollie, became a noted author and journalist, her articles published in leading African-American publications. By the late 1890s, Lambert began to experience some physical and mental difficulties. One day in April 1890, he was found hanging lifelessly from a rafter in the woodshed at the rear of his house. Earlier, there were indications that he was a troubled man after he was discovered unconscious, apparently stricken with some sort of brain disorder.
On the day of his suicide, he had attended church, came home and went to the woodshed with a length of doubled clothesline, climbed on a sawhorse, passed the loops around his neck, and then kicked the sawhorse from under his feet.
Lambert was a pillar of Detroit’s community and his funeral was attended by hundreds, and his daughter wrote a loving tribute to her father whose life and dedication she was determined to follow, which she did to great acclaim.