[Marxism] Detroit’s Untold Stories of Slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 26 14:42:33 MST 2017

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Nov. 26 2017
Detroit’s Untold Stories of Slavery

A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits
By Tiya Miles
Illustrated. 336 pp. The New Press. $27.95.

The events of the 20th century loom large in Detroit’s racial history: 
the Great Migration that pulled black Southerners to the Motor City, the 
rise of Motown Records, the bloody riots of 1943 and 1967. In “The Dawn 
of Detroit,” the historian Tiya Miles transports the reader back to the 
18th century and brings to life a multiracial community that began in 

If many Americans imagine slavery essentially as a system in which black 
men toiled on cotton plantations, Miles upends that stereotype several 
times over. Her book opens in the early 18th century, when the French 
controlled Detroit and the majority of enslaved people were both Native 
American and female. The town came under British rule in 1760, then 
shifted to American control after the Revolutionary War. Laws, 
boundaries and national identities were unstable; so was the institution 
of slavery. Miles skillfully guides the reader across this complex terrain.

Slavery in Detroit revolved around the fur trade. “Trading in the pelts 
of beavers and trading in the bodies of persons became contiguous 
endeavors in Detroit,” Miles writes, “forming an intersecting market in 
skins that takes on the cast of the macabre.” Some slaveholder-merchants 
also stole territories from Native people. Miles probes this 
“intertwined theft” of bodies and land.

Miles confronts a dilemma in her effort to illuminate the lives of 
Detroit’s enslaved people. Their own words are “nearly nonexistent.” The 
archives hold no cache of interviews with ex-slaves from Michigan. So 
Miles has relied on the wills, letters and account ledgers of 
slaveholders. The result is an “oftentimes broken account of important 
events that stitches together historical interpretation, context and 
causes, while patching in intuitive descriptions of people moving 
through a fraught place.” Miles’s use of “intuitive descriptions” can 
seem overly speculative in a few instances. But on the whole, her book 
powerfully reconstructs the experiences of Detroit’s slaves. The dearth 
of archival sources makes her achievement all the more impressive.

Miles tells the story of Ann Wyley, an enslaved woman of African 
descent. In 1774, Wyley, together with a French Canadian servant, stole 
furs from Wyley’s owners. Wyley and her accomplice were both convicted 
in 1776 and sentenced to death. But the justice of the peace could find 
no willing executioners for the Frenchman, and so he offered Wyley a 
grisly deal: Wyley would play the part of hangwoman in exchange for her 
own life — and, according to one source Miles consulted, her freedom as 
well. Wyley carried out the deed months before the new nation declared 
its independence.

During the transition from British to American control, Detroit seemed a 
“mind-boggling morass of murky rules.” The Northwest Ordinance, which 
stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in 
the territory, was adopted in 1787 but did not take effect until 1796 — 
with the American occupation. By that point, Detroit’s enslaved 
population had reached a peak of 298 people. Slaveholders insisted that 
the ordinance applied only to incoming residents. Furthermore, the Jay 
Treaty protected British property rights in Michigan and permitted the 
continued possession of slaves. Yet the Northwest Ordinance could 
embolden those in bondage. They escaped to Canada — though Miles shows 
that Canada was not always a bastion of liberty — and some even sued for 
their freedom.

The story of Peter and Hannah Denison helps to illustrate both the 
“extraordinary and all-too-ordinary character of Detroit.” The Denisons 
struck a deal to secure their own freedom, but their four children 
remained enslaved. In 1807, they sued for their children’s freedom. That 
August, before the case was decided, Michigan’s governor formed a 
militia to defend Detroit against potential attacks from Native tribes. 
Extraordinarily, the militia was composed of nearly 40 runaway slaves — 
and Peter Denison served as its commander. Denison had enticed many of 
the men from the estates of British slaveholders in Canada. A special 
territorial committee later praised the militia members as “responsible 
and even patriotic,” Miles writes. “No other city, state, or territory 
within the nation had yet made such a bold defense of black men’s 
collective honor.” In the fall of 1807, a judge ruled against the 
Denisons. So the family fled to Canada. Detroit had revealed itself as 
an all-too-ordinary American town: committed to slavery, enriched by it, 
and enmeshed in it.

Jason Sokol, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, is 
completing a book entitled “The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and 
Legacy of Martin Luther King.”

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