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Underground Railroad

William Lambert, An African American Leader of

Detroit's Anti-Slavery Movement.

By Evelyn Leasher

Before the Civil War Detroit had a small but active African American population. One of the most activeAfrican American men of the time was William Lambert, who in addition to his public activities, ran a thriving tailoring and dry cleaning business. Lambert's name is prominent in many accounts of activities involving African Americans in Detroit from his arrival in 1840 to hisdeath in 1890. He worked with the Underground Railroad, he organized an African American secret order, he led the Detroit Vigilant Committee, he was a deacon in his church, and he workedto bring publicly supported education to the African American children of Detroit.Lambert corresponded with many of the anti-slavery leaders of Routes through Indiana and Michigan in 1848.hisday. He was a personal friend of John Brown and participated in the Chatham meeting in which John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry was planned.

In 1886 Lambert was interviewed by a reporter on the Detroit Tribune about his activities before the Civil War in Detroit. The resulting newspaper article is an important source of information about antebellum Detroit and African American activities there. That interview is the focus of this website. The newspaper article is reprinted in full with links to the various references made by Lambert wherever they could be found. For example, when talking to the reporter Lambert pulled from his desk a copy of Walker's Appeal for Freedom. There is a link to the Walker website which gives the full text of the Appeal, a publication banned in the South, which is full of references to the evils of slavery and which calls for the elimination of that portion of the population who refuse to grant slaves the right to be human. That Lambert was in possession of this document is important information which helps to understand his work.

Lambert also mentions an important co-worker in Detroit, George De Baptiste. In the article De Baptiste is repeatedly called Le Baptiste, but there is no doubt about the identity of the person. De Baptiste and Lambert worked together for many years on all aspects of anti-slavery work. When De Baptiste died newspapers carried lengthy obituaries which gave details of his life and his work on the Underground Railroad. There are links to these obituaries which give an idea of the scope of De Baptiste's work and the dangers he faced in pursuing his anti-slavery goals.

Lambert's detailed description of a secret African American organization which worked to free slaves is one of the few references to this organization. The elaborate ritual he describes and the secrecy of the work speak to the need to keep its existence hidden. There may be many reasons for this secrecy but one of the reasons may have been the danger involved in working to free slaves, especially after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was enacted.

Lambert's interview was conducted in 1886, many years after the events he was recalling. There are some statements which could not be verified or which were slightly wrong. For example, he and the reporter mention an article in Century magazine about John Brown by Col. Green of the United States Marine Corp. There is an article by Col. Green but it was not in Century magazine. A link to Col. Green's article is provided. The reporter also mentioned a poem by Richard Realf which has not been discovered, but information about Richard Realf is included. Another problem is in the estimate of the number of people who were helped by the Underground Railroad. Although it is not possible to give accurate figures of Underground Railroad work these figures do not appear to be realistic in comparison with the actual number of slaves in the United States.

The Underground Railroad has been written about and studied at great length. However, there is relatively little mention of the involvement of African Americans in the work. Lambert's interview makes clear that in Detroit African Americans were actively involved. They were organized and they were efficient and they were militant. They knew what they were doing and they were willing to take risks to free their fellow human beings from slavery and discrimination. Lambert is an example of a man who saw a wrong and did his best to remedy it.

At the end of the website there is a short bibliography for further reading. This is by no means a complete Underground Railroad or Detroit bibliography. This reading list stresses material which might help in understanding the antebellum Detroit scene. Of particular interest is the article by Katherine DePre Lumpkin in which Lumpkin uses this same Lambert article to discuss Detroit and the secret organization Lambert describes.

Detroit Tribute January 17, 1887, Page 2
Reminiscences of the Brave Old Days of the Famous Underground Line
Historic Scenes Recalled
Detroit the Center of Operations that Freed Thousands of Slaves

The western underground railway paid no dividends, aspired to no monopoly, and never had a general meeting of its directors. Its objective termini were Canada and Freedom, and its trade was derived from the slave plantations of the south, its patrons were people of color, and its promoters and managers had their headquarters in Detroit. Some of them still live and all of them recall the days of the underground road with the hearty satisfaction that comes from a good work accomplished.

Among those living here, well known and highly respected, is William Lambert, age, say, 70; occupation, tailor and philanthropist; son of a slave father and free mother; a man of education, wide reading, rare argumentative power; the founder of the colored episcopal church of this city, and the leader of his race in this state. He is the warm, personal friend of Frederick Douglass, was intimate with the Rev. Highland Garnet, worked hand in hand with J. Theodore Holly, now bishop of Hayti; was the trusted counselor of Gerrit Smith, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Philips, and had something more than a passing acquaintance with John Brown. Under such circumstance it is no wonder that William Lambert was chosen as active manager of the underground railway service. His energy was unflagging and his executive qualities of the highest order. Associated with him was George DeBaptiste, also colored, and like Lambert, possessing good executive ability. The pictures of both these men are worth turning to as presenting faces and heads whose phrenological development would attract attention were they Caucausian instead of negro. LeBaptiste is dead, but Lambert still lives, his mind and eye undimmed and his enthusiasm for the advancement of his race sparkling as brightly as ever. He told the greater part of this story which follows, but the charm of its narration is lost in the writing, for Lambert's modulated voice, his graceful gesticulation and the carefully chosen and accurately pronounced words with which he clothed his teeming ideas can only be suggested here. Nearly 40,000 slaves were made free by crossing them into Canada over Detroit and St. Clair rivers between the years 1829 and 1862, when the last one was ferried over. In the last twenty years of that time $120,000 were collected and expended to bring slaves from the south to Canada, by way of Detroit. There escaped to Canada in all the estimated number of 50,000 slaves. A few of these were not travelers on the underground road, but they were a small minority. The larger number were brought from Florida and Louisiana and from the border states. They were never left unprotected in their journeys, and the hardships they underwent to secure liberty were not only shared with them by their conductors, but repeated time after time by the hundred or so of men who cheerfully assumed this arduous duty.

Taking up Mr. Lambert's story of personal reminiscences he begins with 1829, at which time a band of desperadoes, something in general character like the James' Boys, were the terror of the southwestern states. McKinseyites they were called, and in number were some sixty or seventy. They robbed and pillaged wherever they could with safety, and these people were the first southern agents of the underground railway system of Detroit. "It was a long time," said Mr. Lambert, "before we could make up our minds to make use of these scoundrels, but we at last concluded that the end justified the means. Indeed we went further than that before we got through our work, and held that the effort to secure liberty justified any means to overcome obstacles that intervened to defeat it. These men would, with the permission of the slave himself, steal him away from the owner who had a title to him, and then sell him. From this second bondage they would steal him again and deliver him to us on the line of the Ohio river. They got their profit out of the sale, although they had to commit two thefts to do it. There were no steam railways in those days. We traveled at night, or if in daytime with peddling wagons. We had at one time more than sixty tin peddling wagons with false bottoms, large enough to hold three men, traveling through the south. Our association with the McKinseyites was from the very necessities of the case of short life. They were sure to be caught sooner or later, and at last some more daring robbery than usual brought some of them to prison and dispersed the rest. We then began the organization of a more thorough system and we arranged passwords and grips, and a ritual, but we were always suspicious of the white man, and so those we admitted we put to severe tests, and we had one ritual for them alone and a chapter to test them in. To the privileges of the rest of the order they were not admitted."

"Mr. Lambert," said the reporter, "there is among the poems of Richard Realf one that hints at the existence of the order whose ritual was filled with a marvelous imagry."

"Oh, you have seen that, have you?" and the old gentleman's eyes sparkled. "Well, I wrote that ritual and you shall see it."

He took from a desk where "Walker's Appeal for Freedom," and the letters of Mr. John Brown, Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, and Lucretia Mott were carefully preserved, two books bound in sheep, and of the pattern called memoranda books in the trade. In Lambert's own handwriting was the ritual, the names of the degrees, the test words, grips, description of emblems and lessons. It is impossible to give full space to them here. The order of using them was composed of nearly 1,000,000 free Negroes in the United States and Canada. Of their literary merit it can only be said that they rank with the best of all the orders, and as to the poetry and imagry so richly used, Mr. Realf, who was a white member of the order, had made no exaggeration. The title of the order was the "African-American Mysteries; the Order of the Men of Oppression." In the first chapter the degrees were captives, redeemed and chosen. A branch of the first degree was that of confidence which was used on the underground road. It could be bestowed by any one of those in or above the degree of chosen. It was from this degree that the agents sent to the south were selected. The oath administered ran thus:

I. A.B., do most solemnly and religiously swear and unreservedly vow that I never will confer the degree of confidence on any person, black or white, male or female, unless I am sure they are trustworthy. And should I violate this solemn covenant may my personal interests and domestic peace be blasted and I personally be denounced as a traitor.

This was a mild oath compared with those called for in passing to other degrees. To complete the confidence ritual, however, which was the one actively used by the underground railway managers:
Word - "Leprous."
Password - "Cross over" - spoken thus:
Question -Cross?
Answer - Over.
First lecture:
Q. Have you ever been on the railroad?
A. I have been a short distance.
Q. Where did you start from?
A. The depot.
Q. Where did you stop?
A. At a place called Safety.
Q. Have you a brother there? I think I know him.
A. I know you now. You traveled on the road.

This conversation was the test. It was taught to every fugitive, and the sign was pulling the knuckle of the right forefinger over the knuckle of the same finger on the left hand. The answer was to reverse the fingers as described. It is an interesting feature of this history to remember that nearly 40,000 slaves used this test, and it was on the lips of every Quaker in America, the latter for the first and only time foregoing the use of "thee" and "thou" in order to make the test more certain.

The Grand charter lodge had its rooms on Jefferson avenue, between Bates and Randolph, about where No. 202 now is. When the applicant for the degree of captive was brought up for examination he was detained without while asked what it was he sought.
"Deliverance," was the answer.
"How does he expect to get it?"
"By his own efforts."
"Has he faith?"
"He has hope."

He was clad in rough and ragged garments, his head was bowed. His eyes blindfolded and an iron chain put about his neck. When his examination was over his eyes were unbound and he was admitted to the fellowship of the degree of captive. When he passed to that of the redeemed the chain and fetters were stricken off, although before that, when his eyes were unbound and he was a captive, he found about him all the members of the lodge present, each of them with a whip in his hand. In this way the organization maintained its typical character. After passing to chosen there were yet five degrees, that of rulers, judges and princes, chevaliers of Ethiopia, sterling black knight and knight of St. Domingo. To pass into these was no small task upon the memory and studiousness of the aspirant. The last one has a ritual of great length dealing with the principles of freedom and the authorities on revolution; revolt, rebellion, government - in short a digest of the best authorities. It is of no little credit to the mental capacity of the colored race in that day when free schools were closed to them in most of the states that over 60,000 took the highest degree. It was when the highest ranks were reached that the full intention of the order were first learned. The general plan was freedom, and it is only in the presence of such records as these that the strength of the colored race in organization for their manumission becomes known.

It is from this body that John Brown took on his task of raiding Harper's Ferry. The history of the Chatham Convention (pdf), presided over by Elder W. C. Monroe of Windsor, and one of whose prominent members was Mr. Lambert, has been told in Redpath's history of John Brown (Roberts & Co., Boston, 1860) and it is gone into at some length by Mr. Farmer (pdf) in his excellent history of Detroit. In both of these it is shown that John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry was planned here, and much of the money used was subscribed here.

It was on some of the personal qualities of John Brown that the reporter opened the interview with Lambert which may run steadily along from this point.
"Have you read the last contribution to the history of John Brown episode published in the Century, from the pen of Col. Green of the United States marine corps?"
"Yes, I saw that, and he most unjustly says what so many have equally erroneously declared, that John Brown (pdf) was crazy. I knew him well, as the many letters you see here from him and this one from his wife of his execution will show. He was sane and reasonable, but he knew that what was necessary was to make a beginning. It was out of the circumstances of the case destined to be a failure of itself, but it opened the way. John Brown told me himself that he could not expect to escape martyrdom. 'But I shall have made the flame that will give the unquenchable light of liberty to the world,' he said, standing erect and pointing to heaven as he spoke. That was what he did."

"When did you meet Brown first?"

"Here in Detroit. I was expecting a train from the south and we were waiting for it at the lodge on Jefferson avenue. This was our custom. The fugitives were brought in from the country from Wayne and Ann Arbor so as to arrive at night. They would be brought to the vicinity of the lodge, when we would go and test them, and all those with them. Some twenty or thirty came on the night I speak of, and I went down to test them. Among others to whom I applied the test was a tall, smoothly-shaven man. When he had answered correctly I cried out: "Are you John Brown? You are: I know it, brother." "Yes, brother, I am John Brown." From that moment he and I were the firmest friends. He stopped with me at my house, then in the western part of the city, and became a conductor on the underground railway. He brought to Detroit more than 200 fugitives. Here are the books. If you care to go over them you will see the reports that give the dates and names, and from whence they came. He penetrated every part of the south, and visited every colored man that it was possible to get at, who had intelligence to grasp the idea of freedom, and yet made no boast of it. He was indefatigable in these respects. He was always on time, and his personal courage, tested a thousand times, was beyond dispute.

"When we had received the people at the lodge we then took them to the rendezvous, which was the house of J.C. Reynolds, an employe of the company then constructing the Michigan Central railway. He had been sent by Levi Coffin of Cincinnati, who was the head of the underground railway in the west. His residence was at the foot of Eighth street, just opposite the place where the first elevator was subsequently built. The house has long since been torn down. We would fetch the fugitives there, shipping them into the house by dark one by one. There they found food and warmth, and when, as frequently happened, they were ragged and thinly clad, we gave them clothing. Our boats were concealed under the docks, and before daylight we would have everyone over. We never lost a man by capture at this point, so careful were we, and we took over as high as 1,600 in one year. Some times we were closely watched and other rendezvous were used. Ald. Finney, Luther Beecher, McChubb and Farmer Underwood could tell you lots about these details. Finney's Barn used to be filled with them some times. It stood opposite the hotel property which bears Finney's name. Well, one night we had reason to believe we were watched. Two persons were skulking about and we turned upon them. Brown seized them both and dropped them over the pier head first into the water. He had scarcely done so when he threw off his coat and plunged in after them and brought them safely to land. They would have certainly been drowned had he not interfered to save them. Once in Indiana, near Indianapolis, he was driving a covered wagon with nine fugitives concealed under some old furniture. He was pursued by some slave-hunters who had got on the trail in some way, and although they were armed and fired at him he boldly faced the crowd and drove them away, and brought his charge through in safety. But those incidents of Brown were the recurring ones to every conductor, of whom we had as many as a hundred employed. It was recalled by all the old underground railroad people who are living. He wore a belt of seven revolvers and he used them when necessary with deadly aim. He engaged in the business of a conductor rather from the necessity of his nature for excitement than for any other reason. Over the revolvers he wore at all times a loose-fitting overcoat, with wide openings for the pockets cut high up, but no pockets. Into the holes he thrust his hands and drew his weapons unperceived and fired with telling effect through the cloth of his coat. I used to make those coats for him, and I knew how often they were marked by bullet holes and burned by exploding powder. That fellow used to go down into any one of the states and get an engagement as driver and overseer and then get a train load and fetch them in safety every time. He brought over 1,500 to Detroit. At last he became so well known and had to run such risks that he was sent to the east, where he worked on the Philadelphia branch very successfully. It would be a picture if you could only have seen it, never to be forgotten, if you could have witnessed many of the scenes of families reuniting and of freemen reaching Canada. For any labor, or cost, or danger, that was our ample reward. I guess most of the incidents that happened in Detroit are pretty well known. After we got to Michigan we didn't have a regular route, but we did have others. We used to work up the Wabash river to Ft. Wayne, and then cross into Washtenaw county, where Ann Arbor is, you know. There we had lots of friends and help. Then if the hue and cry had been sharply raised we would keep our people in concealment and get them over the ferry when we could. They used to lay in barns and all sorts of retreats and doubtless underwent many hardships, which at times caused them almost to regret their flight, but we got them through all right at last. Girls we often brought as boys, and women disguised as men, and men as women were frequent arrivals. When railways began to be built we used to pack them in boxes, and send them by express. We got thirty or forty through in that way, but the danger to their lives by reason of lack of careful handling and fear of suffocation made that means dangerous."

"In making some preliminary inquiries I heard of one Lovett who had three or four negroes who used to go south with him and allow themselves to be sold and share the proceeds after escaping with the underground railroad. Do you know him?"

"There was such a man from St. Clair. I do not remember that Lovett was the name. It was all very disgraceful, indeed. His accomplices were not permitted on the underground railroad after they were discovered, you may be sure. The man, whatever his name was, finally died in prison - was captured in Tennessee and, after being locked up in Brownsville jail, was removed to Jackson to prevent his being mobbed."

"Well, the story is that the underground railroad people gave the information that secured his arrest."

"That may be so. You see we could not stand upon hair-splitting questions of right and wrong when the main objective of our intention was threatened. I am not aware that we did anything more serious than Lovett's own acts themselves to imperil his safety."

"But what was the most important thing happening in Detroit in connection with your railroad on society?"

"Well, I suppose it was the one that led to fugitive slave law being introduced by Benton of Missouri in the United States senate. Benton, strangely enough, as perhaps you know, was the father of Mrs. John C. Fremont, the wife of the first candidate of the republican party for president. They eloped together. Well, there was a slave escaped from Arkansas some time in 1840 and we got him into Indiana among some abolitionists, who said he would be safe there. They taught him to read and so on and he came to Detroit. His name was Robert Cromwell. After awhile he went to Flint and opened a barber shop there. Now, one of the greatest difficulties we had was to keep fugitives from writing home and giving their addresses, or otherwise betraying their whereabouts. Cromwell thought he'd be cunning, so he wrote to his old master, dating his letter at Montreal, and telling what he was doing and so on, and asking his master, whose name was John Dun, to send him his sister, and he would send him $100. But he posted his letter at Flint, and it went forward with the post stamp of the same date as that within. Dun knew that no one could come to Flint from Montreal in one day, so he came to St. Louis and looked up a Flint newspaper in the exchanges of the St. Louis Republican, and there found Robert Cromwell's advertisement, "next door to the hotel" that was described and named in Robert's letter. About this time Robert began to think he had done a foolish thing, and becoming frightened hurried down to see me. He concluded to come to Detroit for a while and leave his shop in charge of some man. This he did, and then opened a little restaurant at the corner of Brush and Larned streets. His mother came to Flint and soon traced him here, but the slave law then was the one of 1790. It authorized the master to seize his slave and bring him before the judge of the United States court, who would make the necessary order to bring him back. Judge Ross Wilkins, of sainted memory, was then judge of this circuit, and the United States courthouse was the First national bank building at the corner of Jefferson and Griswold. Dun knew that to get any warrant or summons would be to put Cromwell on his guard and he consulted with the United States district attorney, at that time John Norvell, who told him he could seize his slave and bring him before Judge Wilkins, who would then have to make the order, but it would be impossible to do this in the streets, the man must be enticed to the court-house. Accordingly an officer, who was appropriately named Bender, went to Cromwell and told him to come to the United States court to give testimony as to the character of certain houses in the vicinity of his shop, Cromwell wanted to know what the United States court had to do with the character of the houses. Bender, said he knew nothing, had recently come there, and so on. Then the officer produced an unsigned subpoena. Cromwell laughed at this, and the officer then went away and returned to say that the judge had ordered him to fetch him. On this Cromwell went. Dun stood just inside the door of the building, and as soon as Cromwell entered he pushed it to and attempted to seize his former slave. Cromwell dashed for the window and tried to escape, giving the alarm. This was heard above and its nature suspected by Judge Wilkins, who at once fled from the court, it is said, to the attic. Anyway he disappeared. George Ball was the clerk of the court. He yelled down to Cromwell not to allow himself to be fetched up - for God's sake not to come up. By this time George Le Baptiste, myself, and a score of others, among them George Rogers, a lawyer, were on the ground, but we could not get into the court-house - the door was closed. Ball, however, came to the upper window and threw us out a key to come in by another door, and in two minutes we had Cromwell free from Dun and rushed him down to the foot of Shelby street, into a skiff, and into Canada. While this was done Dun was detained on the steps, the crowd growing momentarily larger and more threatening, a number of Irish among them crying out, "Where's the man stealer?" "Let us at him." When I came back Jefferson avenue was filled with people. There stood Dun on the steps, towering over every one about him, and looking for a means of escape. All at once Dun make a dash. He thrust the crowd aside like chaff blown from a fanning-mill, and tore down Jefferson avenue, where a friendly door opened for him and closed to shut out the crowd. Just at this time the passage of a state law had been secured making it a penal offense "to inveigle or kidnap any fugitive slave to return him to slavery." Mark the wording. Well, Elder Monroe whose picture you have there and who died in Africa on the St. Paul Loando river, where he had gone to establish a colony of episcopalians, took the lead in this affair and we demanded Dun's arrest under the law. It was hours before the officers fetched him out and brought him to Justice O'Byrne's office at the corner of Woodward and Jefferson avenues. We colored people demanded admittance, which was refused us, and we appealed to Mayor Van Dyke (pdf). We told him that Dun was from Maryland, and the United States court had jurisdiction. Our law point was bad, but we were many in number and resolute. The mayor made us a speech and then declared we should be admitted. It was decided to postpone the hearing until 9 o'clock the next day, and when a bankrupt merchant was offered as bail Elder Monroe objected. The judge threatened to put us out, and we asked him to begin. Then John Norvell offered himself as bail, but Monroe remembered that a mortgage sale of his property had recently been published, and objected to him. What would have happened I cannot say had not Dun cried out that he wanted no bail, that he preferred to go to jail. The mayor begged that no disgrace be brought upon the city by mob law. The state law should be enforced, he declared, and proposed that we form in a double line in the street, allow Dun to be brought down and to pass to the jail, then on the site of the public library, where we could see him enter and be assured that he would be kept. We agreed to this, and the colored people kept their word, but the Irish population had not so agreed, and the danger to Dun's life was very great. Just as we got to the jail a rush was made but it was stayed. Well Dun lay in jail till the next term - three months - and being afraid of the mob let his trial go over, and lay in jail six months more. He was rich, and had big lawyers come up from St. Louis, but it was no use, and we would have sent him to state prison had it not been that the law read, "to return to slavery." He had inveigled and attempted to kidnap, but there were not able to prove that he did it to return him to slavery.

"Well, when the United States senate met, Senator Benton introduced a fugitive slave bill with a speech in which his wonderful faculty for invective was turned upon Michigan. The history of the case he recited and charged Michigan (pdf) with being the resort of a nigger mob. Gen. Cass, United States senator from Michigan, then replied; and defended the state and its colored citizens in a way that set our hearts beating with joy. But afterwards, when we thought we had him ready to swallow, and came to him to lead the petition to the state legislature to strike out the distinctive words "white and colored" in the state laws and constitution, he evaded us. So we went in to defeat his presidential aspirations, and we did. That is the story of the inception of the fugitive slave law.

"Well, our work went forward here just thirty-three years. It was a great one, and I am satisfied with my share of it. I have told more of it to you than I ever did to any one before. Indeed, I am quite hoarse with talking."

The old gentleman rose, indicating thereby that he had talked himself out for one sitting, and, giving me a courteous good night, added that, some other day, he would like to tell about the Bulwer-Clayton Treaty at length. F.H.P.

This information was written in January 2003.