Despite its location in the northern part of the United States, the region that would become the state of Michigan was not always welcoming of abolitionists and those escaping slavery. In the 1820s, as settlers from New York and other northeastern states emigrated to the area, they brought with them a greater understanding of the issue of slavery (Rubenstein and Ziewacz 87). Between 1827 and 1855, numerous laws were enacted which made it increasingly difficult to capture and return freed and escaped slaves. Despite the passing of these laws, Southern slave owners and their agents worked tirelessly to arrest escaped slaves, often with the assistance of local law enforcement. The success of the abolitionist movement is largely due to the efforts of members of the Underground Railroad, a system that used a series of secret “depots” to hide slaves, who traveled along escape routes during nighttime hours (Rubenstein and Ziewacz 89). These routes, called “lines”, eventually delivered the slaves to Canada, where they were freed. By 1850, abolitionism was so widespread in Michigan that Kentucky’s senator, Henry Clay, described the region as a “hotbed of radicals and renegades” (Rubenstein and Ziewacz 92).

I believe early settlers were advocates of the abolition movement because they had emigrated to Michigan from the Northeastern states, where slavery had been largely abolished by the 1780s. These settlers had therefore been brought up in a region which advocated freedom for all men, regardless of skin color. As westward expansion grew, the settlers brought these ideals with them into the new territory. It was this mindset that caused the region’s legislature to pass a law in 1827 prohibiting free blacks from capture by slave hunters – a decision that would pave the way for the addition of future abolitionist laws. Settlers brought these beliefs to other areas, as well, including parts of the Northwest Ordinance that would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. By the mid-19th century, several other states and territories were incorporated into the United States, most under abolitionist law.

Though all slaves were awarded freedom by the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it would be over a century before civil rights were awarded to African Americans, especially those living in southern states. The fight for equal rights in the decades following the Civil War was difficult despite the passing of laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This act granted African Americans equal treatment in public areas and allowed them to be included in courtroom juries. Though blacks were granted the right to vote and could be elected to government office, their efforts were largely abated by Democrats, who used scare tactics to prevent them from going to the polls. Though they enjoyed many new freedoms, African Americans were still regarded as second class citizens by most. Following the Civil War, the passing of Jim Crow laws in the southern states encouraged segregation by requiring blacks to use separate facilities, such as bathrooms, drinking fountains, and schools. It was during these times that many African Americans came to realize that freedom did not guarantee equal rights.

I believe that the period following the Civil War presented a harsh reality for all African Americans, regardless of their former status as a freeman or slave. It is not difficult to imagine that many heard the news of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and expected to receive the same rights as white people. Instead of being welcomed as citizens of “the land of the free”, most would encounter a future of oppression and harassment.   The century that occurred between Abraham Lincoln’s famous executive order and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 left blacks in a constant battle against racism, segregation, eugenics, and countless other struggles for equal treatment under the law. These decades brought much needed attention to the gap that existed between liberation and equality.


Rubenstein, Bruce A. and Ziewacz, Lawrence E. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

Mullen, Lincoln. “These Maps Reveal How Slavery Expanded Across the United States.” Smithsonian, May 2014,

National Archives. “The Emancipation Proclamation.” Jun. 2017,

Aaron, Charlene. “Eugenics: America’s Past Genocide of Poor Minorities.” CBN News, Jan. 2012,