As America watches refugee crises in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world, let us not forget an inherently American and completely homegrown refugee crisis of years past — Black people fleeing slavery through the Underground Railroad. One of the Detroit stops on that Railroad — a historic Black church — has been recognized by the federal government for its role in slavery abolition and helping bring freedom to Black people escaping oppression in the South.
Founded in 1846, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church is one of the oldest historically Black congregations in the U.S., and one of Detroit’s most respected and influential institutions. As Pat McCaughan of the Episcopal News Service reported, the church was recognized for its role in history when the National Park Service added St. Matthew’s to the National Network to Freedom. Even before Lincoln became a member of Congress and before Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom, this hallowed Detroit institution was helping enslaved runaways cross the Detroit River to freedom in Canada.
According to the National Park Service, during the 19th century, St. Matthew’s was a center of abolitionist activity and the Underground Railroad because of its leadership. William Lambert and Rev. William Monroe — both Underground Railroad activists and Black Detroit leaders who played a vital role in the Colored Vigilant Committee of Detroit — were involved in the church from its inception. Monroe would later emigrate to Liberia and establish an Episcopal mission there.
Further, Rev. James Theodore Holly, ordained as deacon in 1855 and priest in 1856, had encouraged free and enslaved Black people to immigrate to Canada and participate in the Underground Railroad. Rev. Holly — who became the first ordained Black bishop in the Episcopal Church when he founded the Episcopal Church in Haiti — also had worked with author and abolitionist Henry Bibb in Canada in publishing a Black anti-slavery newspaper called Voice of the Fugitive.
In addition, many of the members of the church included those who sought freedom. The population of St. Matthew’s reportedly dwindled following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, and the church has resided at its present location since 1971, when it merged with St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church and became known as St. Matthew’s & St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church.
“We found that it [St. Matthew’s] makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the Underground Railroad in American history … [and we] commend you on your dedication to this important aspect of our history,” said Diane Miller, national program manager of the National Network to Freedom.
This historically important center of community activism and organizing was founded above a blacksmith’s shop, nine years after Michigan became the 26th state, 13 years after Canada abolished slavery and 40 years after Michigan had abolished the practice. Over a decade, nearly 40,000 passed through Detroit under the stewardship of Lambert and other leaders. St. Matthew’s was one of three Black houses of worship in Detroit that assisted those seeking freedom during slavery.
Source: Atlanta Black Star | David Love