Second Baptist Church of Detroit is a historic and still-functioning church that features in my middle grade historical fiction novel, The Candle Star. Organized in 1836, a year before Michigan became a state, it claims the honor of being the oldest Black congregation in the midwest. The congregation moved to its present location in 1857, just two years before The Candle Star takes place.
The church began serving as a station on the Underground Railroad shortly after its founding and continued to do so until the Fugitive Slave Laws were repealed in 1864. During those nearly 30 years, members helped thousands of freedom-seekers over the Detroit River and on to safety in Canada.
Second Baptist started the first Detroit school for Black children in 1937 and has retained that spirit of community service, producing many prominent social activists in the intervening years, from early abolitionists to presidents of the Detroit NAACP and even a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
During my research, I found the names of multiple community leaders who were also members of the church. Those who make an appearance in The Candle Star include Mr. William Lambert, a tailor, and Dr. Joseph Ferguson, who became a licensed physician in Richmond, Virginia as a “freed man” before moving to Detroit. Both were noted abolitionists.
George deBaptiste was another significant historical character. His steamship, the T. Whitney, frequently carried human cargo to safety, many of whom likely passed through the church. (Incidentally, Mr. deBaptiste was legally forbidden from captaining his own steamship and had to hire a White man.) Mr. deBaptiste also hosted Frederick Douglass in his home after the famous orator addressed the congregation of Second Baptist on March 12, 1959, which also features in The Candle Star. Shortly thereafter, a meeting took place in Mr. deBaptiste’s home between Mr. Douglass and fiery abolitionist John Brown, who tried to convince the passive Douglass to back a more violent approach to emancipation (Brown’s plan to raid the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry). Douglass politely declined.
A historical marker outside the church reads: Founded in 1836 by thirteen former slaves, this is the oldest black congregation in Michigan. From it beginnings the church has occupied a prominent place in Detroit’s black community. In 1839 it established the city’s first school for black children, and its first pastor, the Reverend William C. Monroe, was a noted anti-slavery activist. In 1843 he presided over the first State Convention of Colored Citizens, which met at the Second Baptist Church. Delegates demanded the right to vote and an end to slavery. On January 6, 1863, Detroit’s blacks celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation here. Located at this site since 1857, the church has expanded its facilities through the years.
The church offers very informative lecture and walking tours. Click here for information.