public history projects

Slavery in Detroit

Slavery in Detroit is a public history project that seeks to explore and share a chapter of the city’s history that is rarely acknowledged. Detroit, like many towns across colonial and early America, was a place where slavery was practiced. Both African Americans and Native Americans were held as property there, and they struggled to live within the limitations of bondage. Several enslaved Detroiters attempted escape to secure freedom for themselves and their families before the War of 1812. Confronting the reality of slavery in Detroit allows us to see hidden dynamics as well as lesser known heroics in Detroit’s past.

The Slavery in Detroit project has various components that are continuing to unfold. “Mapping Slavery in Detroit” is an informational website created with a team of dedicated undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Michigan with support from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program at UM. The website includes reflections on a tour of Detroit taken by our team and guided by Detroiter and professional storyteller Elizabeth James. (For further reading on this topic and additional maps about black Detroit history, see our reference list on the website.)

A Michigan History magazine article, Slavery in Early Detroit, based on a public presentation made by our team at the Historical Society of Michigan Local History Conference in 2013 describes early thoughts on this research. Tiya is currently at work on a book to further explore and expand the Slavery in Detroit public history project.

Watch the video of Mapping Slavery in Detroit. The video showcases the two years of work Professor Tiya Miles and a team of students spent researching the history of slavery in pre-Civil War Detroit, mapping the lives of slaves and former slaves and reclaiming an essential part of the city’s history.

The Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine featured a write-up of Mapping Slavery in Detroit written by Brian Short. Read the full article.

View full project site.

Vann House Public History Project

The Chief Vann House, operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, offers a rare opportunity for the exploration of African American life among American Indians. James Vann was a wealthy Cherokee who built a plantation called Diamond Hill in present-day north Georgia. Vann and his family possessed nearly 100 of the 583 black slaves owned by Cherokees in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The Vann home has been restored and is open to the public for guided tours and events.

View full Vann House public history project page.

Margaret Ann Crutchfield Memoir

The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story contains a transcription of the religious memoir of Peggy Scott Vann (also known as Margaret Ann Crutchfield), mistress of the Diamond Hill plantation and wife of James Vann. As the first convert to the Moravian faith in the Cherokee nation, Peggy should have written, or had written for her, a religious biography called a “Memoir.” However, archivists expected that a memoir had never existed for Peggy Vann because no such text had been found. A copy of the original text has now surfaced.

View full Crutchfield Memoir page.

Laura Smith Haviland, Michigan Abolitionist

The Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Michigan has become a topic of increasing public interest during this sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War. While on sabbatical in 2010-11, I had the opportunity to engage in local research on the topic. I became especially interested in the biography of the daring abolitionist, Laura Smith Haviland, whom historian Catherine Clinton has compared to Harriet Tubman.

View full Laura Smith Haviland page.

Tiya discussed the heroic role Laura Smith Haviland played in the anti-slavery movement in Michigan and the Midwest on a recent segment on Michigan Public Radio. Listen to the interview.