Eleven Detroit streets named after slaveowners

Many of Detroit's earliest settlers -- and most prominent families -- owned slaves during the city's earliest days.

Though not nearly to the extent as it happened in the South, slavery did exist in Michigan – and especially in Detroit, as the small, French, fur-trading settlement grew into the metropolis we know today.

Our history is full with Detroit being known as a last stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves headed to freedom, as well as stories of freed slaves making homes here (though with resistance). What’s not often as talked about is those black Detroiters who were held as property, particularly in the city’s earliest days.

Detroiters didn’t own a lot of slaves; what little history there is shows that slaves were small in number, working as servants and attendants, and were "treated well." But it is a part of our history, and their owners’ influence still linger in the city today.  Here are 11 streets in Detroit named after Detroit’s (or otherwise) most prominent slaveowners.

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1. Joseph Campau. Historians know that the Campau family were among Detroit’s earliest settlers, beginning with Jacques Campau who arrived to the region in the early 1700s. His grandson, Joseph Campau (after whom the street is named), accumulated several acres of land and was worth $10 million at the time of his death. What do you do with all the land, though? Have slaves work it – which is exactly what the Campau family did.

2. Cass Avenue. Almost everything in Michigan named “Cass” (including Cass Tech) is named after Michigan’s second governor (before Michigan was a state) and one-time presidential candidate. Although against slavery and supporting the idea that a state should decide whether to enforce slavery (and not the federal government), there is record of Cass owning at least one slave himself.

3. Macomb Street (and almost anything named “Macomb”): Like the Campau family, the Macomb family was one of the Detroit region’s earliest settlers. (The Campau family actually purchased land from the Macomb family at one point.) However, notably William Macomb, the Macomb family was Southeast Michigan’s largest slaveholder – William owned 26 at the time of his death.

4. John R – Named after John R. Williams, the city’s first mayor, Williams was also a scion of the Campau family. And he owned slaves.

5. Beaubien Street – The Beaubien family was an early French-Canadian Detroit family that, like many, made their living on ribbon farms and land ownership. And they also owned slaves.

6. Brush Street – Brush is named for landowner and attorney Elijah Brush, who held so much property in what is now downtown Detroit, streets were developed to accommodate his land (which explains the odd intersection of Brush and Gratiot downtown) and he was the developer of what is now Brush Park. Although he represented a black woman in court who was born into slavery arguing that she should be free in the Michigan Territory, he is on record for owning slaves himself.

7. McDougall Street – Named after George McDougall, the one-time owner of what we now call Belle Isle, he is listed alongside other prominent Detroiters of his day as owning slaves.

8. Chene Street – The Chene family was another landowning French family who is listed as owning slaves.

9. Jefferson Avenue – You didn’t think we would let the presidents off the hook, did you? Jefferson is, of course, named after Thomas Jefferson, history’s most notable presidential slave owner.

10. Rivard Street – Like the Campaus and Chenes, another landowning French family listed as slave owners.

11. Washington Boulevard – Named after George Washington, the nation’s first president who, yup, owned slaves.

BONUS: The namesake of Hamtramck is John Hamtramck, an Army officer who served in the Revolutionary War — and slaveowner. 

[Sources: Slavery In Detroit, HistoryDetroit.com, mlloyd.org.]

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