DeBaptiste, George c. 1814–1875
George DeBaptiste c. 1814–1875
Businessman, Underground Railroad manager
George DeBaptiste, a respected business leader and entrepreneur by day, was also a man who lived by codes of secrecy and intrigue by night. As a free black born during slavery times, DeBaptiste lived the injustice of a country that allowed him to hold a job and buy a home, but treated others with skin as dark as his like objects to be sold, worked, beaten, and resold. Like other free blacks at the time, DeBaptiste would not sit idly by. His work for justice and equal rights began in the anti-slavery movement when he was a young man, continued through his middle age when emancipation became law and voting rights were established for blacks, and finally finished with a continued commitment to black rights until his death in 1875.
George DeBaptiste was born of free parents in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1814 or 1815. There, he studied to be a barber and worked as a personal servant to wealthy whites. After marrying, DeBaptiste and his wife moved to Madison, Indiana in 1838. In Madison he became involved in anti-slavery movements including the Underground Railroad. His activities soon caught the notice of the local law enforcement and DeBaptiste was cited under the Black Code laws which threatened anyone abetting a fugitive slave with possible expulsion from the state. Not one to cower in the face of unfair laws, DeBaptiste refused to comply and the case went to the Indiana Supreme Court on DeBaptiste’s assertion that the Black Codes were unconstitutional. Though the justices didn’t agree with his views on the Black Codes, they did agree to let DeBaptiste remain in the state.
DeBaptiste’s brush with the law and anti-slavery activism didn’t hurt his job prospects. He soon became the personal steward to General William Henry Harrison. In 1841, when the General was elected president of the United States, DeBaptiste accompanied him and became a White House steward. His stay in the White House was short-lived—Harrison died after just two months in office. DeBaptiste returned to Madison but soon found life there too hostile. His abolitionist activities made him a target of harassment. In 1846 DeBaptiste moved his family to Detroit, Michigan “bringing with him experience both in business and black affairs,” wrote David M. Katzman in Before the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century.
In DeBaptiste’s first few years in Detroit he was a whirlwind of business activity. He became co-owner of a popular barber shop while moonlighting as a sales clerk at a downtown clothing store. In 1850 DeBaptiste purchased a bakery. After a few years in the bakery business, the restless DeBaptiste sold the bakery and invested in a steam ship, the T. Whitney, that made regular runs along the Detroit River. At that time, though a black man could own a boat, he was not allowed to captain it and DeBaptiste hired a white captain to run the ship. After a few successful years transporting cargo—including slaves to freedom—he sold the boat and began a catering business.
At a Glance…
Born in 1814 or 1815, in Fredericksburg, VA; died in 1875.
Career: Entrepreneur and business man; worked as a barber, sales clerk, and caterer; served as a White House steward under President Harrison, 1841; owned and operated a steam ship, a bakery, and a restaurant; land owner in Detroit and surrounding areas; helped organize the First Michigan Colored Regiment during the Civil War and accompanied the regiment to the South into battle.
Member: Underground Railroad in Madison, Indiana and Detroit, Michigan; founder, all-black Detroit based secret society dedicated to anti-slavery activities, The Order of the Men of Oppression (a.k.a. African American Mysteries); delegate, Cleveland National Convention of Colored Citizens; participated in the national black convention of 1853 in Rochester, New York; agent, Freedman’s Aid Commission.
Throughout his busy years in Detroit, DeBaptiste never let up on his anti-slavery activities. Though he pursued legal means to free blacks, including attending political conventions as a black delegate, he increasingly turned to illegal activities to support his abolitionist beliefs. The government’s reluctance to support abolitionists and refusal to promote rights and justice for its black citizenry caused DeBaptiste and other abolitionists to rely on themselves for change. Katzman wrote, “Many of Michigan’s black leaders looked beyond legal remedies for relief …. [turning to] more direct, sometimes extra-legal, action.”
As they embraced these activities including harboring runaway slaves from the South and helping them to escape to Canada, DeBaptiste and his peers found the need for increased security. Along with other active black abolitionists in Detroit, DeBaptiste formed a secret society dedicated to anti-slavery activities. Alternately called The Order of the Men of Oppression and the African American Mysteries, the society served to “protect themselves from infiltrators,” wrote Betty De-Ramus in the Detroit Free Press. “The oath administered to agents sent to the South concluded: ‘I will never 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.’”
From the 1830s to the 1850s, DeBaptiste played a major role in helping escaped slaves find freedom. “Runaway slaves reaching Detroit could find asylum at the home of George DeBaptiste,” wrote Benjamin Quarles in Black Abolitionists. However, DeBaptiste did much more than just provide a safe house. He was also a manager of the Underground Railroad. Neither a railroad, nor underground, it was a loose network of abolitionists, black and white, that helped slaves escape from their southern oppressors. Punctuated by safe houses, or “stations,” the Underground Railroad provided passage to the North. The Railroad communicated through hidden messages in church sermons, code language, and infamous “Notices to Stockholders” which announced movement of slaves through cryptic messages couched in railroad terminology. The exact number of slaves that traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom is unknown due to the fact that assisting a runaway slave was a crime and therefore the Railroad acted under extreme secrecy. Estimates vary widely from 40,000 to more than 100,000.
As a manager, or “stockholder,” as supporters of the Railroad called themselves, DeBaptiste was instrumental in assisting the movement of untold numbers of escaped slaves. An 1870 article on DeBaptiste’s early role in the Underground Railroad while still in Madison is recounted in Charles L. Blockson’s The Underground Railroad: “Under the management of DeBaptiste, the stations did a thriving business.” The article goes on to describe how DeBaptiste’s wagon would “break down” the day before a slave transport. The wagon would be locked in the repair shop of a wagon maker sympathetic to the abolitionists. In the dark of night, with his horses’ hooves shod in carpet to muffle their steps, the wagon would be snuck out of the shop, put together, and off they’d go to provide transport. By morning the wagon was back in disrepair locked safely in the shop and the horses, their feet carpet-free, would be secure in their stables.
Despite the precautions taken, DeBaptiste was known to be involved in assisting slaves to escape and for many years there were bounties on his head, including a &1000 bounty in Kentucky. This didn’t stop his work. In Detroit he transported slaves to Canada on the T. Whitney, listing his human cargo as “black wool” on customs sheets. He also served as head of the Colored Vigilance Committee of Detroit which was a more visible group than the Railroad. “In one two week period in 1854 the committee gave assistance to fifty-three freedom-bound blacks, a figure which grew to 1,043 for the period from May 1, 1855 to January 1, 1856,” wrote Quarles.
DeBaptiste kept associations with some of the most important abolitionists of the times including Frederick Douglas, an educated ex-slave and respected orator. He also knew John Brown, the white abolitionist who promoted violence as the way to combat slavery. The church DeBaptiste belonged to, the Second Baptist Church of Detroit, also played a prominent role in assisting runaway slaves on their journey to freedom. The Detroit Historical Museum estimates that over 5,000 slaves passed through the church’s basement which served as a safe house during daylight. The church still stands in Detroit today and the basement has been turned into a museum.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected to the office of U.S. president. With him he brought a commitment to end slavery. Soon after his election, South Carolina seceded from the Union. On April 12, 1861 the first shot was fired that signaled the start of the bloody Civil War between the Union in the North and the Confederacy in the South. In August of 1863 DeBaptiste, in a show of support for the new president and for abolitionism, began organizing the Michigan Colored Regiment. By October of 1863, the all-black regiment had over 1, 400 volunteer soldiers. On March 28, 1864, under the name of the 102nd U.S. Colored Troops, DeBaptiste and the regiment left Detroit for service in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. On April 9, 1965 General Lee of the Confederacy surrendered. The war was over. Yet, there would be one more casualty. On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated. However, abolitionism could not be killed and slavery became officially, though not practically, abolished. DeBaptiste’s Michigan Colored Regiment was disbanded in Detroit in October of 1865. In the 19 months that the regiment served in the war, over 150 members were killed.
Though the Civil War had been won by the North and Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation had become law with the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the Underground Railroad, at least in Detroit, continued to exist. Finally, after the passage of the 15th Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, DeBaptiste posted the last Stockholder Notice on April 7, 1870, during a Detroit celebration of the amendment, It read, “Notice to Stockholders— Office of the Underground Railway: This office is permanently closed.” The sign was later attached to DeBaptiste’s office building on a prominent corner of Detroit.
DeBaptiste turned his attention to his catering business and found great success. He soon purchased land throughout Detroit and expanded his business to include an ice cream parlor. He later extended his holdings to the outlying area of Detroit where he bought a great house and piece of land. There he opened a restaurant and dance hall. All the time he continued to fight for and support black rights. DeBaptiste died of cancer in 1875, leaving a legacy of activism and courage that continues to inspire.
Aptheker, Herbert, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement, G.K. Hall and Company (Boston), 1989.
Blockson, Charles L., The Underground Railroad, Prentice Hall Press, p.196–198, 1987.
Katzman, David M., Before the Ghetto; Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press, pp. 14–15, 32, 41, 178, 205, 1973.
Quarles, Benjamin, Black Abolitionists, Oxford University Press, pp. 148, 153, 164, 1969.
The Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1999; February 23, 1999.
The Detroit News, February 8, 2000.
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